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As adult-use cannabis legalized in Maryland, governor issues 'historic' 175K pardons

By Chris Benson
"We cannot celebrate the benefits of [cannabis] legalization if we do not address the consequences of criminalization," Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said Monday. File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI
1 of 4 | "We cannot celebrate the benefits of [cannabis] legalization if we do not address the consequences of criminalization," Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said Monday. File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI | License Photo

June 17 (UPI) -- Maryland Gov. Wes Moore on Monday issued a "historic" pardon of more than 175,000 individual marijuana convictions, his first since the state's legalization of recreational cannabis went into effect last year.

"We cannot celebrate the benefits of legalization if we do not address the consequences of criminalization," the first-term Democrat governor said Monday.

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Cannabis is legal for medical use in 38 states and recreational in 24. Maryland voters in 2022 approved a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana that took effect July last year.

Monday on social media, the governor's office called it "the most sweeping state-level pardon in any state in American history."

Moore's automatic pardon will clear more than 150,000 misdemeanors for possession and more than 18,000 possession with intent to use drug paraphernalia convictions, including for deceased persons. But while the pardons affect those with charges occurring before January 1 of last year, it will not result in any individual being released from prison.

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Amid conflicting laws and changing opinions, states and the federal government have been taking incremental steps over recent years to either legalize marijuana or reduce penalties for it. A Gallup poll from November last year showed that national grassroots support for marijuana legalization is at an all-time high of 70%.

President Joe Biden in October 2022 issued pardons for federal marijuana offenses and urged states to follow and called on governors to do the same at the state level, which nine others have since done.

The city of Baltimore will comprise roughly 23% of Moore's pardons. Moore pointed to decades of social and economic injustice with respect to marijuana convictions for low-level offenders.

Mayor Brandon Scott said in a statement that Moore's pardon "is a step towards healing" in what he called a "visceral and tangible" legacy of what "the war on drugs has had" on Baltimore.

"We still see and feel the wounds every day in the lives, families, and communities that were disrupted and destroyed," the mayor said. "For those receiving the pardons -- which includes thousands upon thousands of Baltimoreans -- it will be life changing."

But Moore acknowledged on Monday that legalization "does not turn back the clock on decades of harm that was caused by this war on drugs" or "erase the fact that nearly half of all drug arrests in Maryland during the early 2000s were for cannabis."

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"I'm ecstatic that we have a real opportunity with what I'm signing to right a lot of historical wrongs," Moore said in a recent Washington Post interview ahead of Monday's sweeping pardon.

"If you want to be able to create inclusive economic growth, it means you have to start removing these barriers that continue to disproportionately sit on communities of color," he said at the time.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration in April agreed to reclassify marijuana, removing it from the ranks of deadly drugs such as heroin, therefore acknowledging that cannabis has moderate to low risk for users.

"It doesn't erase the fact that black Marylanders were three times more likely to be arrested than white Marylanders," Moore said Monday.

But the governor's office noted that while a pardon is not the same as a criminal record expungement which is an extra step, the charge still will appear on an individual criminal record.

Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown called it "a momentous day" as he said it was "significant for several reasons."

"First, it's long overdue," Brown, a former congressman and the state's former lieutenant governor, said. He added that Moore took "bold and decisive action."

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"As a nation, we've taken far too long to correct the injustices of a system that is supposed to be just for all," Maryland's Democrat attorney general said.

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