The billboard atop a vacant building loomed over Baltimore’s Station North arts district, announcing “DEFUND BPD”—broadcasting, in tall white letters, activists’ demands that the Baltimore Police Department’s annual $500 million+ budget be reduced.

Activist artists have used the billboard a number of times over the years, calling attention to the police who killed Freddie Gray, mocking elected officials and developers, and at the start of the pandemic, declaring “Cancel Rent and Fuck The Police.” 

After George Floyd’s murder, as activists painted “DEFUND BPD” in the street in front of City Hall, and Baltimore residents began more loudly questioning police spending, the billboard was changed to “DEFUND BPD” (an accompanying “Free Palestine” was added last year).

After George Floyd’s murder, as activists painted “DEFUND BPD” in the street in front of City Hall, and Baltimore residents began more loudly questioning police spending, the billboard was changed to “DEFUND BPD” (an accompanying “Free Palestine” was added last year).

That’s how the billboard has remained over the past two years—at least until the end of March, when over a few days “DEFUND BPD” was painted over and replaced by an advertisement for the upcoming Charm City Smoke Fest, a 420-friendly hip-hop festival featuring a number of local rappers.

“CHARM CITY SMOKE FEST” was there instead of “DEFUND BPD,” and the cat from Alice in Wonderland with a weed leaf in its mouth covered up the words “Free Palestine.”

Baltimoreans were angry at or amused by (and maybe a little of both) a call for changes to policing painted over to promote a festival for cannabis. It is a drug that, while decriminalized in Maryland, continues to disproportionately incarcerate Black Baltimoreans and is commonly used by cops to justify searching someone’s car, place, or person. 

Battleground Baltimore reached out to the artist who created the commissioned “CHARM CITY SMOKE FEST” mural, who declined to comment. They instructed Battleground Baltimore to speak to Andrew Ensor, who runs Charm City Smoke Fest. Ensor also declined to comment.

Battleground Baltimore also reached out to the activist artists behind the “DEFUND BPD” billboard, who explained their frustration.

“As the city budget comes around and we consider the impact of the police on our communities, and the toll of the drug war, we are disappointed that the weed industry decided to erase an important message for an advertisement,” they told Battleground Baltimore.

The artists behind “DEFUND BPD” have been persistent, always reclaiming little space on top of an abandoned building they’ve expropriated for radical sloganeering. 

As of Friday, Apr. 8, the billboard had been repainted and again says “DEFUND BPD.”

“Defund2Refund”

Covering up the billboard’s “DEFUND BPD” message right now was especially poorly timed. While April may be the month of 4/20, it is also the month where Baltimore City’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year is released, and over the next couple months, the city council, community organizers, activists, and any Baltimorean who care, will try and weigh in and make the budget just a little bit more equitable.

Top of mind for many is the Baltimore Police Department’s allotment of that budget, which adds up to more than 25% of the total city budget. According to the group Organizing Black, one of the key organizers in the local push to defund BPD, “the city spends more than $900 per person on policing,” and “for every dollar spent on policing, 50 cents is spent on public schools, 20 cents on public housing, 12 cents on homeless services, 11 cents on recreation and parks, and 1 cent on mental health services.” 

Currently, BPD receives $555 million a year. These budget increases, activists stress, are approved despite an ongoing failure to reduce crime and a never-ending stream of corruption scandals.

Already, groups such as Communities United and Organizing Black are pushing back against an imminent police budget increase for this year. For Communities United, the message has become “Defund2Refund,” both questioning spending on police and reminding people that money going to the cops is money not going to the city’s severely underfunded schools, for example.

“The city’s spending should reflect the values and needs of its communities, yet Baltimore’s Black community lacks stronger schools, better city services, and other basic resources,” a press statement from Communities United explained. “Instead, Baltimore spends more per capita on policing than 72 of the biggest U.S. cities and the Mayor’s budget is expected to continue this pattern of violence and abandonment.”

Organizing Black is once again engaging residents to show up for the city’s two Taxpayers Nights, where residents can show up and comment on the budget to the Board of Estimates and then, the City Council. In 2021, more than a hundred people showed up from all across the city calling for defunding but those wishes were ignored and the police got another $28 million.

Currently, BPD receives $555 million a year. These budget increases, activists stress, are approved despite an ongoing failure to reduce crime and a never-ending stream of corruption scandals. Just this week, former Baltimore Police Sgt. Keith Gladstone testified in federal court about stealing drugs and guns. Another cop under oath said he frequently falsified police reports.

To tie it all together, one of this city’s most high-profile victims of dirty cops, rapper Young Moose, is performing at Charm City Smoke Fest on Apr. 23.

Cannabis Legalization On The Ballot in Maryland

In more encouraging cannabis news, thanks to two measures that passed in the Maryland House last week, legal, adult-use cannabis will finally be on the ballot in November.

Consistently derailed by hedging during legislative sessions (from many of the same Democrats who said they supported legalization), cannabis legalization has also been dogged by legislators’ inability to come up with an approach that accounts for the thousands of mostly Black lives harmed by pot prohibition.

House Bill 1, which puts legalization on the ballot, does not need Gov. Larry Hogan’s approval. If Maryland voters approve, those 21 and older would be allowed to legally possess 1.5 ounces or less of cannabis as of July 2023.

House Bill 837, which does go to Hogan, establishes some of the basics of a legalized cannabis for adults in Maryland: That bill would legalize possession of up to 1.5 ounces, reduce criminal penalties for low-level possession to a fine, and allow for the growing of as many as two plants per household. It would also automatically expunge past offenses for cannabis and create a Community Repair Fund, moving tax revenue  generated by cannabis to those most affected by the racist war on drugs.

The bill also retains quite a bit of the power the police—and, after arrest, the entire criminal legal system—has over citizens due to cannabis. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU MD) and Leaders Of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS) have noted some of the limits of HB 837. Namely, possession over 1.5 ounces remains a criminal offense (and could become a possession with intent to distribute charge), “which given Maryland’s history will be enforced in a racially biased way,” ACLU MD and LBS wrote.

A 2018 Baltimore Fishbowl study showed that between 2015-2017 (the first three full years of cannabis decriminalization), 96% of those arrested for cannabis possession of 10 grams or more (over the decriminalized amount) were Black. 

ACLU MD and LBS also noted that the bill headed for Hogan’s desk does not curb the ability for police to use claims of cannabis odor to make traffic stops—a frequent police justification for searches and tool for racial profiling. Additionally, HB 837 adds cannabis to the open container law, which means no one in a car can be smoking cannabis. This, ACLU MD and LBS argue, “could ultimately contribute to more race-based traffic stops and searches.”

According to a 2020 ACLU report, a Black person in Maryland is 2.1 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than a white person, and despite 2014’s decriminalization, 50% of the drug arrests in Maryland each year are still for cannabis.

Even such half-step legalization measures are historic for Maryland, and it has been a long time coming. Consistently derailed by hedging during legislative sessions (from many of the same Democrats who said they supported legalization), cannabis legalization has also been dogged by legislators’ inability to come up with an approach that accounts for the thousands of mostly Black lives harmed by pot prohibition.

“This is really, really complicated,” State Senator Bill Ferguson, who was on the Marijuana Legalization Workgroup, said back in 2019.

The bill going to Hogan’s desk does begin to address “complicated” things, though it is important to stress that this bill does not establish a regulated cannabis program. It simply legalizes cannabis. State Delegate Luke Clippinger and others have promised that next session in 2023, they’ll figure out the regulation and tax elements of legalization.
“The legislature is focused to get this right and we have more work to do—but this is a huge step forward on our journey to legalize cannabis,” Clippinger said.

Brandon Soderberg

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.