Gov. Wes Moore Pardons Over 175,000 Cannabis-Related Convictions, Paving the Way for Justice and Equity

In a monumental move, Maryland Governor Wes Moore has pardoned over 175,000 cannabis-related convictions, marking a significant stride towards justice and equity in the state. This decision, executed through an executive order signed at the State House, nullifies guilty verdicts for carrying small amounts of cannabis or related paraphernalia.

A Transformative Decision

The pardoned convictions encompass over 150,000 misdemeanors for simple possession and more than 18,000 for possession of drug paraphernalia with intent to use. Gov. Moore emphasized that this move is a natural extension of the 2022 voter-approved legalization of adult-use cannabis. Despite the economic opportunities legalization has introduced, many Marylanders, especially in Black and brown communities, still face the lingering consequences of past criminalization.

“You cannot talk about the benefits of legalization if you’re not willing to deal with the consequences of criminalization,” Moore stated, highlighting the need to address these historic injustices.

Addressing Systemic Racial Inequities

Baltimore is the most affected area, accounting for nearly 25% of the pardoned convictions. Other significant regions include Baltimore County and Prince George’s County. State officials are working to further analyze the demographic data, with expectations that Black Marylanders will benefit significantly due to historical over-policing in their communities.

“This has had significant racial equity undertones in it as well, in the way we have used the criminal justice system and used cannabis policy as a cudgel against communities of color,” Moore said.

Correcting Historical Injustices

Gov. Moore’s decision aims to rectify past wrongs within the criminal justice system. He pointed out the unfairness of individuals continuing to face repercussions for actions that are no longer illegal. Lingering convictions can hinder access to housing, employment, professional licenses, public benefits, and educational opportunities.

This move follows President Joe Biden’s 2022 initiative to pardon thousands of federal cannabis possession charges and his call for local officials to do the same. Gov. Moore has been in discussions with the president and other governors on this critical issue.

Implementation and Impact

The pardons apply to arrests made before January 1, 2023, when cannabis possession was decriminalized. While the exact timeline of affected convictions remains unclear, the governor’s office assured that all pardons would be updated in Maryland’s online court records within two weeks, requiring no action from the individuals affected.

A state pardon does not clear public court records; only an expungement by the judicial branch can fully erase a conviction history. However, expanded state expungement laws from 2022 now mandate the automatic wiping of hundreds of thousands of cannabis convictions where possession was the sole charge. Additionally, pathways to expungement exist for more complex charges, and those incarcerated for simple possession can petition for resentencing and release.

Continuing the Fight for Social Equity

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, commended Gov. Moore’s decision, emphasizing the need to continue reducing the long-term impacts of criminal convictions. This includes expanding automatic expungements, preventing employers from inquiring about criminal histories, reducing incarceration rates, and striving for a more equitable justice system.

In tandem, state lawmakers have created a business license framework prioritizing “social equity” applicants and a tax revenue distribution plan benefiting communities harmed by cannabis prohibition. Maryland’s adult-use cannabis market, which opened on July 1, 2023, reflects this commitment to social equity.

The Maryland Cannabis Administration selected the first round of lottery winners for conditional business licenses in March, ensuring that social equity entrepreneurs maintain majority ownership of these businesses. Applicants must have lived or studied in areas heavily impacted by cannabis convictions or attended state colleges with significant Pell Grant recipients. The majority of qualifying ZIP codes are in Baltimore, Baltimore County, and Prince George’s County.

Looking Ahead

Maryland’s approach to prioritizing social equity in the cannabis industry sets a precedent for other states. Tax revenues from adult-use sales will first cover state regulation costs, then be distributed to communities affected by the war on drugs, aligning with strong public support.

Gov. Moore’s pardons are a significant step toward justice and equity in Maryland, setting an example for other states to follow in addressing the historical injustices of cannabis prohibition.

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