Opinion: Changing the Rules on Drug Laws

The Justice Policy Institute has released a report, “Rethinking Approaches to Over Incarceration of Black Young Adults in Maryland.” In the report, the institute found that 70% of Maryland’s prison population in 2018 consisted of young black men. That number is significantly high considering that African-Americans only make up 31% of the state’s population.

Data gathered from Maryland’s 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act showed that 58% of all prison admissions were for nonviolent convictions, with the most common offense being possession with the intent to distribute narcotics.

Last summer, the Court of Appeals opened up in the drug case ruling of Michael Pacheco v. State of Maryland, with a line from Bob Dylan’s song “the times they are a-changing.” The decision in that case came a little more than six months after Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that her office would no longer be prosecuting marijuana possession cases.

This trend is not just happening in Maryland but across the United States, as we start to rethink how we view drugs laws and consider what the road ahead looks like in order to reverse the negative impacts that have plagued so many communities. So, as our views on drug laws continue to change, shouldn’t the classification of our drug-related crimes?

The negative image of drugs was largely shaped by President Nixon during an address that he gave in 1971 when he declared drug abuse as public enemy No. 1. Now, over 40 years later, statistics show that the laws that were enacted to deter the sale and usage of illegal drugs have not worked.

This year, in President Trump’s 2020 budget, the country is slated to spend approximately $1.8 billion on the investigation, enforcement, prosecution and supervision of individuals charged and convicted with drug-related crimes. The toll of America’s drug budget and laws on this country’s human capital is unsurmountable. The Drug Policy Alliance organization suggest that an estimated 1.6 million arrest are made nationally each year for drug-related offenses.

In 22 states, the possession of marijuana has either been legalized or decriminalized to a civil penalty, as marijuana dispensaries are popping up in communities that were once staunch proponents of tough-on-drug laws.

Recently, citizens and legislators in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Utah successfully used the legislative process or voter referendums to reclassify drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor crime.

Now, as we continue to rethink how we view drug laws, it is important for us to understand how the two dominant schools of thought around crime and punishment play into the penalties associated with crimes.

The utilitarian thought is that punishment should be used as a means of deterring wrongdoing, while the retributive belief is that offenders should be punished because they deserve to be. In many states, when you look at existing drug laws the punishment isn’t scalable to the offense committed.

For example, in Maryland wearing or transporting an illegal handgun on your person or in your vehicle is a misdemeanor, while the distribution of narcotics carries the same penalties as violent crimes such as burglary, robbery and aggravated assault.

Many will disagree with the thought of reducing the criminal classification for the distribution of drugs, but why should the penalties for a nonviolent crime be so detrimental to a person’s life?

During my years as a police officer with the Baltimore Police Department, I participated in hundreds of drug arrests. Others like myself, bought into the “war on drugs” agenda under the guise that enforcing these laws was critical to ensure public safety, but looking back on it we were all just prisoners of the moment.

We never thought about the collateral damage being done to the individuals or communities that these laws were enforced in, or how a felony charge or conviction could be a death sentence for someone’s future. And while most states have ban the box laws and other temporary protections in place to shield a person’s criminal history, when it comes to employment, housing and certain financial information, the reality is that there’s still a stigma attached to being a felon in this country.

So, as our elected officials plan to make their way to Annapolis in less than two months to participate in the 441st meeting of the Maryland General Assembly, we need to encourage them to not only continue the conversation on decriminalization, legalization and reducing the penalties for marijuana and other drug possession charges; we must also start to rethink the outcomes for those charged with drug distribution.

Yes, this will be an uncomfortable conversation for some, but when you start to understand the plight of many communities where African-Americans and Hispanics are fighting for survival, then you’ll realize that a bad decision in your youth shouldn’t be a conviction on your life.

— SAMUEL JOHNSON JR.

The writer is a former Baltimore City police officer and Maryland courts judicial officer with more than 14 years of experience in local and state government. 

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