This week, during a special legislative session, Maryland’s Democrats began to undo some of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s cruel and antediluvian vetoes. 

Among the priorities was removing the governor from the decision-making process regarding whether or not people serving life sentences with the chance of parole can receive parole. Maryland was one of just three states that allowed the governor a vote in such decisions. Additionally, Democrats overturned Hogan’s veto of the Dignity Not Detention Act, which bans Maryland counties from working with ICE and holding detainees in their jail. It also prevents law enforcement from asking about one’s immigration status during traffic stops. There was also a big kerfuffle around redistricting, which Maryland Matters covered extensively.

One veto that was not overturned, much to the frustration of harm reduction advocates and people who use drugs, was related to decriminalizing paraphernalia used for injecting drugs. In Maryland, possession of paraphernalia used to inject drugs can lead to as many as four years in prison—much more than drug possession, which can lead to up to one year in prison. That law will remain on the books.

Maryland Democrats didn’t decriminalize drug paraphernalia 

During the last legislative session, a Senate Bill to decriminalize paraphernalia passed, but it was vetoed by Hogan. In response, activists and advocates, including the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, mobilized to push for state-level Democrats to simply overturn Hogan’s veto during the special session that began on Monday, Dec. 6.

At the start of the special legislative session, however, state Senate President Bill Ferguson announced that the decision over whether or not to decriminalize paraphernalia would be “postponed indefinitely.”

The Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition announced they were “grieving this horrifying decision.” Grief is meant literally here. As Battleground Baltimore reported last week, for people who use drugs, their ability to use without fear of overdose has dramatically decreased in recent years, and decriminalizing paraphernalia such as syringes, needles, and cookers seriously reduces overdoses. Because paraphernalia is illegal, people often use drugs alone or in hiding, which increases the chance of dying of overdose. Moreover, cookers are not only for using drugs, but also for testing drugs, which also reduces overdose.

“This means our state representatives won’t have to be on the record as caring or not caring about the lives and loved ones of people who use drugs.”

baltimore harm reduction coalition

“Senate President Bill Ferguson indefinitely postponed any discussion of action on [decriminalizing paraphernalia],” Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition announced in a statement. “This means our state representatives won’t have to be on the record as caring or not caring about the lives and loved ones of people who use drugs.”

As Battleground Baltimore reported last week, the bill to decriminalize paraphernalia was the only substantive bill from the last session that would have significantly addressed the overdose crisis in Maryland.

Ferguson told Maryland Matters that decriminalizing paraphernalia is something that will be revisited in the next session, which starts up in January. He called it “a really complex issue” and said that the state Senate “really want[s] to make sure it’s done the right way.” Ferguson’s explanations on behalf of the Democrats are the same ones that Marylanders advocating for smarter, less harmful drug policy have heard before. Back in June of 2019, for instance, Ferguson described cannabis legalization as “really, really complicated,” and said that the issue of racial equity and cannabis legalization needed to be addressed and would need more time.

Cannabis still has not been legalized in Maryland. 

Two days later, on Wednesday, Dec. 8, as first reported by Maryland Matters’ Hannah Gaskill, Democratic state Sen. Kathy Klausmeier announced that she now supported decriminalizing paraphernalia. Maryland Senate rules, however, do not allow for a vote once a bill has been “postponed indefinitely,” so the announcement was just that: an announcement, nothing more.

There were 2,799 fatal overdoses in Maryland in 2020.

Nine million more dollars for Baltimore Police

The Baltimore Police Department continues to get more money. After the City Council voted to increase the police budget by $22 million dollars over the summer, $6.5 million from red light cameras (which was originally allocated for improving pedestrian safety) was given to the police in September. Now, the Board of Estimates voted this week to approve a $9 million grant for the police. 

That $9,178,400 grant, according to the Board of Estimates, will be used to “deploy police officers to walk foot patrol… work together with community advocates, resolve neighborhood problems, and improve public safety.” It was awarded by the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. What is not clear is why the police, who already have a budget of around $550 million per year, need another $9 million to do that. Last year, Baltimore City endured 335 homicides and 724 nonfatal shootings. The police department made 102 arrests for murder and ended the year with a homicide clearance rate of just 40.3%.

Baltimore Brew recently reported that a state audit of the police department’s evidence management between 2014 and 2020 revealed mismanagement of guns, cash, vehicles, and other property. There has been little control over the cash seized, many guns that were supposed to be destroyed were not, and those who had their property seized were not properly informed of their rights.

Last year, Baltimore City endured 335 homicides and 724 nonfatal shootings. The police department made 102 arrests for murder and ended the year with a homicide clearance rate of just 40.3%.

“In a sample of 47 seizures involving 20 private vehicles and $580,701 in cash, ‘BPD could provide a receipt form for only one of the seizures, which consisted of money totaling $6,460,’ the report said,” the Brew reported. In total, between July 2014 and June 2020, evidence management handled “$11 million in cash, 14,000 weapons, 75,000 drugs and paraphernalia, and an unreported number of vehicles taken by police.” 

Given the Baltimore Police Department’s history of drug-dealing, gun-planting police officers, the lack of oversight is particularly troubling.

Read the Brew’s “Guns, cash and drugs confiscated by Baltimore Police not properly handled for years, state audit finds.”

“WE PAY RENT, GIVE US HEAT”: Lanvale Towers tenants rally for safe housing

On Tuesday, Dec. 7, tenants of the East Baltimore building known as Lanvale Towers—but recently renamed Queen Esther Apartments—gathered near the building that contains the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to protest their living conditions and demand an inspection of the building.

According to the Lanvale Tenants Association, problems inside of Queen Esther Apartments include rats, mold, leaks, broken elevators and plumbing, and fire code violations. Tenants also said that the on-site managers of the building have threatened tenants, won’t provide receipts for rent payments, and have prevented usage of community rooms.

“They’re slumlords. They take our rent but don’t do anything. Slumlords,” Marty Wilson of the Lanvale Tenants Association said in a press release calling attention to the living conditions.

“They’re slumlords. They take our rent but don’t do anything. Slumlords.”

Marty Wilson, Lanvale Tenants Association

Queen Esther Apartments is managed by Radiant Property Management, based in Newark, New Jersey. They took over the building in August and told Baltimore Brew that the past owners and tenants are to blame for the problems they intend on fixing. Seth Rosenfeld, a manager for Radiant Property, also told the Brew that Radiant was “not required” to find hotels for those experiencing the many problems described and also, outrageously, claimed that mold in one apartment was ““actually a place where a chair was scratching a wall.”

The Department of Housing and Community Development, meanwhile, also passed the buck, telling the Brew that, because the building is “a private entity,” Baltimore is not contractually obligated to engage owners or managers of the property.

Earlier this month, 21 units reported no heat, no water, or both. 16 of those units have since had heat restored and the other six were given space heaters.

The Lanvale Tenants Association’s demands are as follows:

  • “The immediate restoration of heat and hot water for all units in the building;
  • In instances where heat, hot water, working plumbing and hazard-free living conditions cannot be provided, Radiant Property Management will provide tenants with free, temporary lodging in a hotel until repairs can be completed;
  • A full building inspection done by a city or state inspector, not a third party inspector paid for by the landlord, and the development of a swift and transparent remediation plan for all identified issues with oversight by DHCD and the Lanvale Tenants Association;
  • An on-site meeting with Radiant Property Management leadership and DHCD Commissioner Alice Kennedy;
  • A financial audit of Queen Esther Apartments, LLC;
  • Accommodations for tenants with disabilities, including relocating tenants with mobility issues to lower floors and substantial maintenance on the elevators.”

Thread of the week: @bmoreProjects on Hopkins and slavery

Last Friday, right as we were going to press, writer @bmoreProjects was hard at work live tweeting the event “Conversations on Slavery, Racism, and the University”—Johns Hopkins University’s attempt to begin to publicly address the fact that despite claims that Hopkins himself was not a slave owner, he actually was. The thread begins here:

Additionally, @bmoreProjects wrote a piece about her own research into Hopkins’ slave owning past and how it sure looks like the university took her research and ran with it to circumvent some bad PR. Read more about that in “Unearthing Johns Hopkins, The Enslaver of Baltimore’s Darker Brothers” here.

Tweet of the week: Tom Perez in Roland Park

“Full house in Roland Park! Thank you to everyone who was able to join us,” Democratic candidate for governor Tom Perez recently tweeted. “Together, we will create a Maryland where zip code never determines destiny. #TeamTom.” 

Perez was roundly clowned for the cluelessness of the tweet. The Roland Park neighborhood is Baltimore’s whitest and wealthiest—locally, it is synonymous with the kind of bougie area where, indeed, living in a certain zip code determines many aspects of your life. Because of its origins as a whites-only community in Baltimore City, ground zero for racist redlining, the neighborhood is one of the main subjects of the 2020 book How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890–1960. For decades, property deeds explicitly forbade homeowners in Roland Park from selling to Black people, and sales to Jews were also discouraged. Unrelated: Perez’s tweet was accompanied by an image of Perez surrounded by a whole bunch of old, white people. 

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Brandon Soderberg is a Baltimore-based writer reporting on guns, drugs, and police corruption. He is the coauthor of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. Formerly, he was the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in The Intercept, VICE, The Appeal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @notrivia.