Debbie Ramsey worked with the Baltimore Police Department for 12 years. She is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit of police, prosecutors, judges, corrections officials and other law enforcement officers who want to improve the criminal justice system. She is an Open Society fellow in Baltimore County.
Across the country, law enforcement officers have wasted millions of hours pouring their energy into the investigation and prosecution of marijuana. This tremendous outpouring of effort has done nothing to make our neighborhoods or residents safer or our communities stronger. As a retired detective for the Baltimore Police Department, I applaud State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby for her transformative decision to stop prosecuting marijuana possession cases in Baltimore City. Similar reforms have been implemented by forward-thinking prosecutors in Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle and Boston. I urge law enforcement agencies across the state to follow her lead and call on Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) to ensure that our next police commissioner shares Mosby’s vision.
Marijuana legalization efforts have been wildly successful. Ten states have legalized marijuana for adult use, and another 32 states, including Maryland, have legalized medicinal marijuana. States with medical marijuana programs have reduced drug-related crime and property and violent crimes. In states that border Mexico, marijuana legalization is associated with a 12.5 percent reduction in violent crime. When we’re so politically divided, legalization still holds overwhelming public support; 2 in 3 Americans support legalization as do a majority of Maryland voters.
Our aggressive enforcement of marijuana laws has inflicted serious harm on the people of Baltimore. Each person convicted faces consequences including job loss, ineligibility for student loans, denial of housing and other issues that make it more difficult to achieve economic mobility. Marijuana prosecutions hurt entire communities: The families of those prosecuted are at higher risk of losing their housing. Minority communities shoulder the vast majority of these consequences. Although black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rates -- and about 60 percent of Baltimore is black -- 96 percent of the people who were arrested for marijuana possession in Baltimore between 2014 and 2017 were black.
This aggressive over-policing of marijuana in communities of color has eroded trust between the police and the communities we have promised to serve. If people of color see us as the enemy, they are less likely to report crimes and cooperate with police in investigations, endangering everyone. Rebuilding trust requires a commitment from all of our leaders, including Pugh and our new police commissioner.
Ending marijuana prosecutions creates an opportunity for Baltimore police to double down on its commitment to solving violent crime. Nationwide, enforcing marijuana laws costs approximately $8.7 billion each year. With Mosby’s announcement, we have a clear mandate to redirect those resources into investigating homicides. Historically, our homicide arrest rate has been shamefully low, falling below 30 percent. And our arrest rates are getting worse: Baltimore is one of only 34 cities where police are making fewer homicide arrests than in 2014. Low solve rates fall hardest on communities of color; homicides are solved at significantly higher rates if the victim is white than if the victim is black or Hispanic. These disparities only serve to deepen the divide between law enforcement and communities of color.
By ending marijuana prosecution, the state’s attorney has taken a huge step to realign the everyday work of police officers and prosecutors with the mission of the Baltimore Police Department: Safeguarding life and property, and promoting public safety through enforcing the law in a fair and impartial manner. Now it is time for Pugh to enable officers to pursue that mission by ensuring that our next police commissioner shares this vision. As Mosby said when announcing her new policy: “Ask any mother who has lost a son to gun violence whether she wants us to spend more time solving and prosecuting her son’s killer or to spend time on marijuana possession. It’s not a close question.”