Through the Wire

Up there in Baltimore, State Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s efforts to purge some 4,790 marijuana convictions from Maryland’s rolls has met what she and others hope is only a temporary roadblock. She began this process on Jan. 30, announcing that day she would also cease prosecution of all marijuana possession cases, regardless of the amount seized. “Prosecuting these cases has no public safety value,” she wrote, “disproportionately impacts communities of color and erodes public trust, and is a costly and counterproductive use of limited resources.” The arguments she makes are familiar to activists around the country, who’ve long inveighed against racial and class disparities at play in the enforcement of drug war protocols, dating back well to the previous century.

Mosby’s desire to vacate these convictions, which originate as long ago as 2011, was blocked late last month by district and circuit court judges, so it’s back to the drawing board on that particular point. She does retain full authority to handle existing cases, however she sees fit, which looks to be not handling them at all. She would send first-time offenders to a diversion program, which has proved reasonably effectively at reducing court costs and preventing cases of recidivism. But a criminal record will no longer be a factor in how these cases are managed, though it must be noted that she intends to continue prosecuting those alleged to be trafficking the stuff.

Catherine Pugh, Baltimore’s chronically embattled ex-mayor, expressed solidarity with Mosby in a statement issued at the same time, situating her stance as part of a larger pushback against the gun violence that’s wreaked national havoc in recent years. “It’s important that we look at commonsense approaches to laws governing personal possession of marijuana,” she wrote, “as cities across the nation have done on the East and West coasts, including New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Reno.” Also note: California took the lead on this; LA and San Diego had already vacated thousands of nonviolent possession convictions in the past year or two.

“The effects of these failed policies have been especially dire for cities like Baltimore,” goes the January statement, “where for decades, we’ve criminalized what is now nationally considered a public health crisis.” Thanks to shows like The Wire, the narcotics scene in Charm City is probably what most Americans think of first when these issues are discussed. The show is one of the city’s proudest cultural exports, but it did give way to a broader perception of the community, which is actively trying to counter. Mosby’s moves are powerful steps in the right direction, and she’s paving a way which many of her peers are likely to follow in the months and years ahead.