The drug war in general and the criminalization of marijuana use in particular have been costly, oppressive failures throughout the United States, Maryland, and Montgomery County. While the potential and actual harms of substance overuse and abuse cannot be denied, not all substance use is abuse — and an unnecessarily punitive, unequally enforced legal system exacerbates and creates harms of its own.
In a recent national study, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” the ACLU has shown that in state after state and county after county, black Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at rates generally anywhere from twice to eight times that of white Americans — despite basically identical marijuana usage:
The War on Marijuana has largely been a war on people of color. [...] In 2010, the Black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000. [...] In states with the worst disparities, Blacks were on average over six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents in the same county.
In every county in the Free State, Blacks are disproportionately targeted for enforcement of marijuana laws. The glaring racial disparities are as staggering in the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington D.C. as they are on the Eastern Shore or in Western Maryland. They are as likely to exist in large counties as small, in counties with high median family incomes or low median incomes. They exist regardless of whether Blacks make up a large majority or small minority of a county’s population. And the disparities have only gotten worse over time.
In particular, blacks are over three times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana possession charges in Montgomery County — and that may understate the disparity. From the ACLU Maryland report: “Between 2001–2010, Black arrests went up by 45%, even though the Black population increased by less than half that much. By 2010, Blacks made up 18% of Montgomery County’s population, but 46% of all marijuana possession arrests. These statistics likely underestimate race disparities in marijuana possession arrests, as Montgomery County has Maryland’s largest Latino population, which was not accounted for in the data reviewed.” While there’s reason to support decriminalization of marijuana in any event, these unequal arrest rates make this a particularly urgent civil rights issue.
Fortunately, a groundswell of support for decriminalization or legalization of marijuana is building in Maryland:
- The ACLU of Maryland is redoubling its efforts to pass a bill that would regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol.
- Democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur has made marijuana legalization a centerpiece of her campaign.
- State Senator Jamie Raskin is sponsoring SB-0658, the Marijuana Taxation and Regulation Act (text) in the Maryland Senate; a parallel bill will be offered by Delegate Curt Anderson in the Maryland House.
- A broad coalition of Maryland organizations including ACLU-MD, Casa de Maryland, NAACP, Law Enforcement against Prohibition, and the League of Women Voters of Maryland are now part of the Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland, with the mission of “[ending] marijuana prohibition by removing criminal penalties for possession” and ensuring “safe, effective, efficient regulation and taxation of the sale of marijuana in Maryland for adults.” The coalition’s Marijuana Control Act of 2014 is a model for bills being introduced before the Maryland House and Senate.
MCCRC was also asked to join in support of the ACLU of Maryland’s marijuana reform efforts. We are proud to do so. We hope to actively advocate for marijuana reform bills before the Maryland legislature, actively educate supporters and the public about the costs to civil liberties caused by the war on drugs — and actively support politicians and candidates such as Heather Mizeur who advocate for marijuana reform. Advocacy like theirs — and the campaign season ahead — make us optimistic that the time has come for marijuana reform in Maryland.
Activism on this issue falls squarely within MCCRC’s mission to defend civil rights and civil liberties everywhere by defending them at home. As outlined at newsrackblog, the drug war in general and marijuana criminalization in particular have gone hand in hand with erosions of civil rights and civil liberties: “Black, white, or Hispanic; Christian, Jewish, or Muslim; activist or not; marijuana user or not: push back against the war on marijuana — both the biggest and arguably the least justified part of the War on Drugs — and the rights you restore or preserve will be your own.”