“I will challenge anyone who is Black, African, and poor to be as radical as we can about the view of the framework of white supremacy,” Willie Flowers tells me over the phone in late March, “and how the so-called war on drugs devastated – continues to devastate – our community,” Flowers is president of the NAACP, Maryland State Conference. He has held the job since 2019. He’s talking about the aggressive campaign that began in the early 1970s to stomp out illegal drug use — a campaign that stretched out over 50 years. It put a lot of people behind bars (especially people of color) but didn’t stop the use or sale of drugs in any meaningful way.
At the time of our conversation, lawmakers in Annapolis were busy laying out a legal framework that will go into effect July 1. That’s when recreational cannabis consumption for people over the age of 21 will be legal. From that point on, adults may possess and consume 1.5 ounces of cannabis flower, 12 grams of concentrated cannabis, or a total amount of cannabis products that do not exceed 750 mg THC.
Here, just like all over the country, there are many Black people who have charges associated with the use of cannabis — a direct result of that failed drug war. They have criminal records for something that, by summertime, will be legal to consume. I’d called Flowers to talk about the NAACP’s work assisting with expungements, a process that, according to the Maryland Courts website, “removes information about a case from court and law enforcement records” — but the conversation was actually more expansive than that.
“In the history of this country, anytime there’s a war, there’s also a period of reconstruction and restoration,” Flowers says. “And reconstruction and restoration for me means putting funds into communities that were devastated by this war on drugs and also restoring the rights…of the people and families victimized during that period.”
Our conversation is about the historic civil rights organization’s work in helping community members who are returning citizens remove charges from their records so that they can resume their lives — and that includes weed charges. He says many of the organization’s branches around the state help with expungement work, often partnering with local public defender offices.
“The community knows that the Office of the Public Defender is the first line usually because a lot of our brothers and sisters have to use a public defender for their criminal defense, and advice comes from them about the process of expungement.”
I tell him that I’ve always thought of the NAACP as a group that had more conservative leanings (I am old enough to remember them holding a funeral for the word “nigger”), and so, perhaps, they wouldn’t necessarily want to be associated with cannabis. But he pushes back on that assumption. For one, he says, cannabis brings economic opportunities for Black people — whether it be growing or selling it. It also directly intersects with the organization’s advocacy work.
“There is pressure from the inside of the NAACP for the NAACP to, you know, not miss an opportunity. Because it is a social justice issue,” he says.
As this issue went to press, Maryland lawmakers had just sent several pieces of legislation directly related to the July 1 recreational cannabis deadline to Maryland Governor Wes Moore’s desk for his signature of approval. Some of the legislation governs how weed will legally be sold. The sale of recreational cannabis will be taxed at 9 percent, and some of that money will go to a Community Reinvestment and Repair fund, which is aimed at providing some measure of restitution to communities hit hardest by crackdowns on the use of weed.
Lawmakers also passed legislation lowering the maximum fines for smoking weed publicly, and stating that police can’t use the smell of weed to stop or search someone.
Other legislation attempts to address the fact that there are many Marylanders with weed -related charges still on their records. Flowers told me that expungements should be automatic. For people with simple possession charges, it likely will be. The process is a little more complicated for people with multiple charges.
“The revised criminal justice codes will pardon simple possession charges in cases where it was the only charge and provide pathways to expungement where the charge was one of many,” reported the Baltimore Banner. “The law allows those currently incarcerated on simple possession charges to petition the court for resentencing and release. In addition, the new law reduces the wait time to three years before one can apply to expunge a possession with intent to distribute charge.”
Matt Parsons, community lawyer with Baltimore Action Legal Team, says that cases involving cannabis are often layered — so the pathway for many can be arduous and time-consuming. The organization, which came together in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, provides legal support and education to support the Movement for Black Lives in Baltimore.
“We work to abolish systems of oppression in Baltimore City,” Parsons says. “What we do for expungements… is one aspect for sure. Our broader work includes other things like strategic litigation, legislative advocacy, community education.” The group partners with other organizations, like the advocacy group Out for Justice, to hold twice-a-month clinics where attendees can access free legal services.
“We view it as a way to dismantle barriers that criminalization creates in people’s lives,” he says. “Having a criminal record prevents you from accessing a lot of basic resources that people are likely to get less of anyway, if they live in certain ZIP codes in more Black neighborhoods. And so, really, that just perpetuates the cycle of criminalization and racial oppression in Baltimore City.”
Parsons says that prior to the coming cannabis legislation, it could take decades for people to remove charges associated with weed from their records. And any subsequent legal problems that might occur after that offense would only restart the clock.
When Braden Stinar was a student at Pennsylvania-based Elizabethtown College, he had been helping his roommate sell weed out of their on-campus housing when they were raided by police. Although Stinar never actually sold the weed or made money in any way, he lied to police and said half of what they found (about two pounds of weed along with some other cannabis-related products) belonged to him. He was arrested, charged with possession with intent to distribute, and kicked out of school.
Once he was home in Harford County, Maryland, Stinar’s parents got him a lawyer, who was able to convince officials to allow him to enroll in a first offender’s program. Once he completed the program and did some community service, the charges were expunged from his record.
Stinar, who is white, is frank about the way certain privileges — his race and his family’s financial standing — meant that the incident didn’t derail his whole life. He’s now attending the University of Baltimore and will graduate with a law degree this spring.
“After I was arrested, that absolutely inspired me to go to law school,” he says. “I really, really want to make change, I guess. You know, help people who didn’t have the same support that I did.”
He says that even with the privileges he had, the case will always follow him. He says he was lucky to get into the University of Baltimore — a lot of other schools wouldn’t take him because of the stigma of having a criminal record. He wants to make sure other people don’t have to grapple with the same stigma in the future.
“I’m looking to do policy work and legislative work and a lot of the same stuff that the [University of Baltimore’s] Center for Criminal Justice Reform is doing, just making more equitable policy.”