Maryland may have a reputation for East Coast liberalism, but when it comes to smoking pot, you might as well live in Alabama.
Penalties for simple possession are harsh: 10 grams or less carries a 90 day jail sentence and a $500 fine. But that’s a tiny amount for a legal cutoff, less than three eights of an ounce. Anything greater comes with a one-year sentence and a fine of $1,000.
What’s more, the state has the fourth-highest arrest rate in the country for marijuana possession. More than 23,000 people were arrested there in 2010, according to the ACLU.
But the most severe consequence for many who are busted in the state is the criminal record that follows them around for the rest of their lives. It can cost tokers jobs, housing, and government benefits literally for decades – all because of a joint or a simple bowl of ganja.
A bill seeking to legalize cannabis in Maryland would change that, however. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. James Raskin, a Democrat, would expunge the criminal record of anyone convicted of any marijuana-related crime that would be legal if his proposal became law.
It’s a relatively novel idea, one that’s popped up in only a few other places where marijuana reform is on the table.
There are two reform proposals under consideration in Maryland. One would decriminalize the drug by replacing criminal penalties with a civil fine, while the other would make weed legal for all adults over 21.
Only the legalization measure would wipe criminal records clean. To people like Diamonte Brown, that’s a very big deal.
When he was 26, Brown was stopped for an unlit tag light. Police searched the car and found a small amount of pot inside a pair of gloves balled up inside her passenger’s purse. Brown was arrested and charged with possession.
She was never convicted, however. She accepted a form of pre-trial intervention known as probation without conviction, and nothing went on her record. Yet she still suffered.
That’s because she lost a job at a Baltimore City school that asked more than the usual question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
“They ask, ‘Have you been charged?” Brown said. “’Have you ever received a probation before judgment?’ ‘Have you ever been arrested?’ Those were things that I couldn’t say ‘no’ to.”
As it stands, removing a marijuana conviction for a criminal record is next to impossible. State law allows expunging only of “nuisance” crimes, and pot possession doesn’t count. The only option for most is an attempt at a pardon – and good luck with that.
Sen. Robert Zirkin, who sponsored the separate decriminalization bill, said he supports the proposal to expunge records but left it out of his legislation because it would make it harder to pass. His bill would, however, make sure civil marijuana citations don’t become public.