Since 2014, when cannabis possession of 10 grams or less was decriminalized across the state, Baltimore City has become a fascinating experiment in patchwork drug policy. Attempts to make cannabis legal in Maryland have failed for many years, resulting in more stopgap interventions, leading to an especially confusing situation for those who use or sell cannabis.
Having more than 10 grams of cannabis on you technically means you can get arrested for misdemeanor possession (or, depending on the amount, possession with intent to distribute). But starting in 2019, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby introduced a policy that her office would not prosecute those arrested for cannabis possession no matter the weight—11 ounces or 11 pounds. Simply put, you could be arrested, but you would likely not be charged.
The far-too-complicated and often contradictory tangle of policies, rulings, and actual laws means, for example, that J, a Baltimore security guard and former cop, has to choose between using cannabis or having the license for the gun he needs for his security gigs.
“I got PTSD. I was a cop for a long time. I got PTSD. That’s one of the symptoms that gets you a medical marijuana card. PTSD,” J told me. “But I can’t get a card from a doctor because then I got to worry that I’ll lose my security job.”
Despite increasingly loose gun restrictions, federal law still prohibits people who use cannabis from buying or owning guns, even if they have a medical cannabis card. In Maryland, the sale of all firearms requires a background check, and on a background check the applicant
must disclose if they use cannabis, which would mean they couldn’t buy a gun. In 2021, the Maryland General Assembly attempted to pass a bill that would make it illegal to prevent medicinal card holders from having guns, but it failed. And even if it had passed, Marylanders with a medicinal card and a gun would still be violating federal law.
Last year, when that bill was up for a vote, J characterized the position the law puts him in: He must choose between having a job and being able to use cannabis to relieve stress, pain, and other emotional turmoil. He also pointed out that armed guards offer security for cannabis dispensaries.
“I know cats who work security at dispensaries. So what are they doing, really? They’re working security, protecting a product they’re not allowed to use,” J said. “And why aren’t they allowed to use it? Because they have to have a gun license to get the job protecting the product they can’t use. It doesn’t make sense.”
Maryland’s slow crawl towards legalization also means the underground drug market has been disrupted a few times over now. Dealers in particular are increasingly out of luck, especially since medicinal cannabis dispensaries opened in Baltimore. M, a side-gigging dealer for decades, has even changed which drug he sells, increasing his risk of arrest and prosecution.
As M explains it, around the same time medicinal dispensaries finally started popping up in Baltimore in 2018, he began to consider selling more cocaine.
“It was only weed for years and years,” M told me. “And then sometimes some blow.”
Over the next two years, M lost more and more customers to medicinal cannabis and the scorched-earth BOGO deals that dispensaries all promoted. His underground prices often couldn’t compete. People who didn’t even have medicinal cannabis cards would compare and contrast his prices to what the dispensary websites listed. He’d text (via Signal) them what he had and how much it was going to be, and they’d send back a screenshot of a nearby dispensary’s website with a similar enough strain on sale, demanding he match the price.
“Ridiculous,” M said. “The kids, they’re spoiled.”
For decades, M dealt enough weed to friends and associates and friends of friends to put about $2,000 or so extra in his wallet each week. By 2021, M felt as though he had to abandon cannabis.
At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, weed sales briefly spiked for him: “More people were home, less people had a card,” he explained. But that didn’t last long. In July 2020, there were nearly 107,000 cannabis patients in Maryland. By July 2022, that number climbed to 148,000 patients. And at the start of the pandemic, dispensaries developed contact-free COVID-19 protocols that made it easy for people to pick up during quarantine, turning the process into the rare activity to do outside of the house in (relatively) safety.
For years, though, M’s out-of-state pot connect had offered him small amounts of cocaine, and occasionally M would take a little to sell. Since 2021, M has almost entirely switched to cocaine, and, he told me, he’ll “pivot” again if he must to keep his lights on and feed his two cats and himself.
“If they legalize cocaine, I’ll pivot and sell something else,” M said.
Despite decriminalization, medicinal cannabis, and changed prosecutorial policies, people in Baltimore City can still get jammed up in the system for weed—and those getting jammed up are still most often Black Baltimoreans.
A 2018 study published by Baltimore Fishbowl (full disclosure: I was one of its three authors) revealed that between 2014 and 2017—the first three years of decriminalization—Black Baltimoreans made up nearly 97% of misdemeanor cannabis possession arrests. An ACLU study from 2020 showed that in Maryland, a Black person was twice as likely to be arrested for cannabis than a white person. For Mosby and her office’s Strategic Policy and Planning Director Michael Collins, the argument for not charging people for weed possession was simple: Fewer arrests for cannabis also meant fewer racially disproportionate arrests were happening over a drug considered “medicine.”
Far fewer people in Baltimore City are being arrested for drugs now than in 2014 when Mosby was elected (and when cannabis was decriminalized):
In 2014, there were 13,356 drug arrests in the city.
In 2021, just 1,046 drug arrests.
However, as our partners at Baltimore Courtwatch have revealed, suspected cannabis possession or claims of cannabis smell still remain an excuse for cops to stop, search, and possibly arrest Baltimoreans and the State’s Attorney’s Office rarely take issue with this practice. Back in June, the Maryland Court of Appeals—the state’s highest court—ruled that, even with decriminalization, police officers can continue to stop and search people in vehicles based solely on cannabis smell. However, explained the court, the cop who makes the stop “must end the stop if they do not quickly obtain information that gives them probable cause to believe the person has at least 10 grams or has committed another criminal offense.”
Police, however, are known to use claims of the smell of cannabis to justify questionable—and downright illegal—searches. For example, in 2017, Baltimore Police Officer David Burch claimed that he received a “tip” that a man in a convenience store had a gun on him.
Burch said that the man smelled of cannabis when he approached him. That claim enabled Burch to search the man for a gun, which he found.
In 2020, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the man Burch searched. “The mere odor of marijuana emanating from a person, without more, does not provide the police with probable cause to support an arrest and a full-scale search of the arrestee incident thereto,” the unanimous ruling said.
This 2022 ruling by the same court, however, said that searching people in their cars is justified. More than a year of citywide traffic stop data provided to the Beat by City Councilperson Ryan Dorsey shows that the city’s primarily Black and poorest districts endure a disproportionate number of traffic stops.
In short, pot smell remains a way to make an end run around the Fourth Amendment, which is supposed to protect people from “unreasonable search and seizure.” Neill Franklin, a former Baltimore Police commander and the founder of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), has been warning citizens of cops claiming they smell cannabis for years.
“Marijuana is still the number one reason the police are using it to sidestep the Fourth Amendment and get into people’s car, pocket, or home,” Franklin once told me. “Constitutionally, it’s wrong.”
For many in Baltimore, the combined 2014 decriminalization, the 2017 rollout of medicinal cannabis, and the 2019 non prosecutorial policy, made them assume that weed was already legal. But this November, Marylanders will go to the ballot to vote on cannabis legalization proper, after bills to amend the Maryland Constitution to make cannabis legal for those 21 and over passed in the last legislative session.
According to a recent Goucher poll, 62 percent of Marylanders support cannabis
With Ivan Bates, the likely new Baltimore City State’s Attorney, coming into office next year, it is possible that the policies will change back and be less forgiving of cannabis possession.
Bates, who defeated Mosby in the Democratic primary and is essentially running unopposed in November’s general election, campaigned in part on rolling back Mosby’s non prosecutorial policies. He has been a critic of Mosby’s policies, calling them “confusing” and claiming, without serious evidence, that not prosecuting people for cannabis has created more violence in the city. Decades of Baltimore City crime data shows that there is little correlation between general drug arrests and crime, let alone cannabis arrests.
According to data obtained by Baltimore Beat via public information requests, there were 304 homicides and 14,912 drug arrests in Baltimore in 1991.
In 2021, there were 337 homicides and 1,046 drug arrests.
Editors’ note: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of cannabis the state decriminalized. The correct amount is 10 grams. The Baltimore beat regrets the error.