Maryland Governor Pardons 175,000 Marijuana Convictions


Maryland Gov. Wes Moore on June 17 issued pardons for low-level marijuana convictions for an estimated 100,000 people in what is being called “one of the nation’s most sweeping acts of clemency” involving cannabis.

The executive order represents the largest pardon for misdemeanor cannabis possession charges for any state in the country, the governor’s office said in a statement, and makes Maryland the first state to pardon some convictions for misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia.

Timed to coincide with Juneteenth, the historic action “is about equity; it is about racial justice,” Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown told The New York Times. “While the order applies to all who meet its criteria, the impact is a triumphant victory for African Americans and other Marylanders of color who were disproportionately arrested, convicted and sentenced for actions yesterday that are lawful today.”

Maryland legalized recreational marijuana in a 2022 referendum that passed overwhelmingly, with 67% of the vote.

But as Mr. Moore told NPR, many people are still burdened by cannabis convictions that create “barriers to everything from employment to education to the ability to buy a home and to be able to start gaining wealth for your family.”

And those burdens disproportionately impact communities of color, the attorney general explained. “We are arrested and convicted at higher rates for possession and use of marijuana when the rate at which we used it was no different than any other category of people,” Mr. Brown told the Post. Black Marylanders were three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white Marylanders before legalization, Mr. Moore told NPR.

“If you look at the past, you see how policies have been intentionally deployed to hold back entire communities,” Mr. Moore told NPR. Past drug policies have led to the mass incarceration of Black men and boys and contributed to communities of color having less access to jobs, housing, and education opportunities, he continued, adding that it helps explain Maryland’s eight-to-one racial wealth gap.

“No Marylander should face barriers to housing, employment, or education based on convictions for conduct that is no longer illegal,” Mr. Moore said in a statement. “Today, we take a big step forward toward ensuring equal justice for all. But this won’t be our last effort. We must continue to move in partnership to build a state and society that is more equitable, more just, and leaves no one behind.”

Twenty-four states and Washington, D.C., have legalized cannabis, according to the AP. In recent years, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws reports, nine other states and multiple cities have pardoned hundreds of thousands of marijuana convictions. And President Joe Biden in 2022 pardoned roughly 6,500 people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law.

The executive order directs Maryland’s state courts to ensure that each individual’s electronic docket is updated to show that misdemeanor marijuana possession charges and misdemeanor paraphernalia charge tied to use or possession of marijuana have been pardoned. The automatic pardon does not remove convictions from people’s records, but NPR reports it includes a process for individuals to apply for expungement.

Mr. Moore said the pardons are a “sweeping and unapologetic” part of his administration’s effort to address Maryland’s history of racial injustice, including policies that deliberately targeted communities of color.

“To undo that kind of intentionality, we need to apply intentionality of our own,” Mr. Moore told NPR.

Reducing racial disparities in a state known for disproportionately incarcerating Black people is a top priority for the governor, attorney general, and Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue. Mr. Brown and Ms. Dartigue, who like Mr. Moore are the first Black people to hold their offices in Maryland, have formed a prosecutor-defender partnership to study racial bias across “the entire continuum of the criminal system.”

“Plainly put: The enforcement of cannabis laws has not been colorblind; it’s been unequal treatment under the law,” Mr. Brown said at the pardon announcement. “Cannabis convictions for hundreds of thousands of people here in Maryland were scarlet letters, modern-day shackles. This morning, I can almost hear the clang of those shackles falling to the floor.”