Since Decriminalization, 96% of People Arrested for Weed in Baltimore Are Black

Journalist Brandon Soderberg and 34-year police veteran Neill Franklin discuss “Structural Racism and Cannabis: Black Baltimoreans still disproportionately arrested for weed after decriminalization.”

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Five years ago, Maryland joined a growing number of states and decriminalized small amounts of cannabis, acknowledging that such arrests do more harm than good. But a new investigation has uncovered that while the Baltimore Police Department is arresting far fewer people for weed, the vast majority of the current arrests are in low-income African-American communities. The piece is called Structural Racism and Cannabis: Black Baltimoreans Still Disproportionately Arrested for Weed After Decriminalization. It’s in the Baltimore Fishbowl, and was made in collaboration with the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

We’re joined today by one of the piece’s coauthors, Brandon Soderberg, as well as Neill Franklin, a 34-year-old law enforcement veteran and executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Thanks so much for joining us.


JAISAL NOOR: So, Brandon, this piece was really good. You know, was a deep dive into this issue five years after decriminalization. We know that the number of arrests are down dramatically. But talk about why you decided to do this piece, and what you found, and what some of the challenges were with transparency from the Baltimore Police Department and other institutions.

BRANDON SODERBERG: Sure. What we decided to do was myself and Ethan McLeod, who’s a reporter for the Baltimore Fishbowl, we’re just kind of curious where all this stood post decriminalization, and also as we have medical cannabis, medicinal cannabis in the city, as well. Seemed like a good time to see where arrests were. And so we focused on misdemeanor cannabis possession, which is non-decriminalized, 10 grams or more, because we … for f number of reasons. But one of them was we wanted to see who is still being hit with criminal charges, really suffering from jail time for this.

And so we looked at specifically 2015, 2016, and 2017, because those were the three full years in which decriminalization was working out. It dropped at the end of 2014, so that data seemed a little fuzzy, and 2018 data won’t be available for a while. So we looked at these three years, and we wanted to look at them by race and zip code and area and see.

I mean, what we saw–which is probably not a surprise to many of the viewers watching this–would be that 96 percent of people hit with misdemeanor cannabis charges in Baltimore are black. So that’s most of them. This adds up to, to be clear, about 1,500 arrests over those three years. I stress that is like, that’s very important. 1500 people in jail matters. But the larger decriminalization, that’s absolutely reduced arrests. But we were really shocked to see that the disparity, the racial disparities, haven’t gone away. We weren’t shocked to see–we thought it was really important to stress.

As for how we got the data, it was sort of cross referenced because of a lack of transparency by the Baltimore Police Department. We did information requests asking for breakdowns of arrests for cannabis misdemeanor by race, which they couldn’t provide us. They said they don’t keep records of that that are easily attainable, which is kind of mindblowing. But they did give us these arrests, which we then mapped out with our data scientist, Andy Friedman, who mapped all these arrests out. We then extrapolated through census data, zip codes, majority black zip codes. Because the city is so radically segregated, and continues to be, there’s not a lot of changes since the last census, we felt pretty confident with that data. Then put that against FBI data, which the police gave to the FBI, which did list race.

And between those two things, and additionally Open Data Baltimore, which is open–the data that the city uploads, we were able to sort of nail down and triple verify that. Depending on the data, it all swings around 96 percent of people that are arrested for misdemeanor cannabis are black. Citations have also gone up a great deal, by almost 100 percent every year since decriminalization. We couldn’t get where citations were. That would be useful, but the police wouldn’t give us that information. It’s not in there, unfortunately.

JAISAL NOOR: And so … so 10 grams or less, and you can’t be consuming it in the public, which I imagine is where a lot of these arrests are happening. That also speaks to class issues, as well. So, Neill, you know, our viewers may be familiar with your work, and we’ve interviewed you countless times on The Real News. You were a former foot soldier in the war on drugs. Now you’re a leading opponent of keeping drugs illegal. So what are your thoughts today on this issue? Seems like every step forward we’re taking a couple back, and we’re sort of making these existing disparities worse with, with even maybe good-intentioned policy moves like decriminalization.

NEILL FRANKLIN: Sure seems that way. And I want to thank Brandon for doing that piece, you know, the research, because people need to know these numbers. They need to be able to reflect upon these numbers and understand that because we’ve moved to this place of decriminalization, which, as Brandon said, overall fewer number of arrests. But we still have the very issues. In many cases the disparity has increased, is a detriment to blacks. And that’s important for people to know. I’m not surprised, though. I mean, this is reflective of what we’ve seen across the country with states that have already moved forward.

But I’m, I’m not surprised, again, as you mentioned, the citations that are being issued; as you mentioned, the arrests that are still being made in low-income areas in black neighborhoods. Because this is still, unfortunately, a valuable tool to law enforcement, to policing, because it is the number one way to get into someone’s pockets to search them, to search their cars, to search their homes. You know, as you say, we’re looking for guns and other things. Now, this is true, because you can even go back a few years and look at testimony in the state legislature from law enforcement folks who have been pushing back against decriminalization and legalization, because they don’t want to lose the ability to search. They’ve testified to this before the legislature. Go back and look at the videos from the past two or three years and you’ll see that for yourselves.

JAISAL NOOR: And so the argument is, like, look, we smell some pot on you, and therefore we can go into your car, go into your home. And then, hey, like, you know, they maybe find a gun or something else, and then that all comes, comes forward.

NEILL FRANKLIN: So as long as this policy still exists, even with decrim, as you said, under 10 grams, they still have the right, if they smell, to search. Because they have to make a determination as to whether it’s below or above 10 grams, and then that leads to what they’re going to charge you with. And citations are not that great for our communities, because when you can’t pay the $100, $200 fine as it increases, you know what? You’re still going to end up in jail. You’re still going to end up being introduced to the criminal justice system.

This moving forward to end prohibition of marijuana, period, so that it’s legalized, and regulated, and controlled, is extremely important. But even there we’re still not done, because there are still pitfalls and other problems for blacks and poor folks.

JAISAL NOOR: Brandon, you talked about how the Baltimore Police Department was less than cooperative with this data, and some of the pushback they had to some of your findings from T.J. Smith, who’s the former communications officer for the Baltimore Police Department. He essentially said, look, you know, people might have been found with weed, but they also had guns, and you’re not incorporating that into your–that’s not, that’s not being, that’s not being shown in your data. What was your response to that?

BRANDON SODERBERG: Right. So, T.J. was the former media spokesman for the police. We now have another one, Matt Jablow, who refused comment at all. But T.J.’s argument was that this is not us going out and arresting a few thousand people for weed. They’re having other–guns or whatever on them. We found that in the FBI data it was clear that the most prominent charge was often cannabis, so what he said was not true. But even regardless of that, it still speaks to a disparity. If there’s these other crimes going on it still means people are being disproportionately arrested for other crimes, even if it were true. In addition to that, it just–it shows a profound misunderstanding, I think, of what it means–what decriminalization was supposed to do versus how police still see it. I mean, I think that the disparity even rising, as Neill pointed out, is a result of them really continuing to see this as like, well, we just won’t bust white folks for this stuff.

And I don’t–and I don’t know how intentional that is, exactly. But it is a result of how the city is policed and where they police. And so immediately when you give this data to someone from–a police spokesman–and his response is, well, this isn’t the whole story, because these people also had guns, it suggests a certain distrust of the community. That is, again, not a surprise. It was kind of maddening to encounter, especially if we were able to counter this with FBI data, I would stress that was provided to the FBI by the Baltimore police. It also just feels like a great deal of spin.

Or you have this other thing that I’d stress is like, our decriminalized amount is 10 grams. Most places it’s more than that where it’s decriminalized. Most places are around 14, or 28, which is an ounce. So you have an issue, too, where we have a certain weird absurdity here where if you have between 10 grams and I think it’s 50 pounds, that’s a misdemeanor charge. I don’t think–if you 50 pounds of weed I still don’t think you should be in jail, but that’s a crazy amount. And then if you go–but if you go to another state it’ll be up to 14. And every way you move that threshold you’re pretty less or more people in jail. And as the data shows, you’re putting less or more black folks in jail.

So that’s another thing about it. It’s not as simple as, like, oh, these people committed a misdemeanor possession charge, and that’s different than being decriminalized. Because the difference is negligible, and it’s vastly different in different states.

JAISAL NOOR: And you know, if we take a step back for a minute, it’s just, it’s just mind boggling to think that we’re still sort of having these, to have to have these discussions all these years later after, you know, we know that the drug war is racist in its intention and how it’s carried out. It’s happening in Baltimore, the first city with a racial segregation law with all this violence and poverty we’re still dealing with. And you know, we all know now that this is only making it worse. And that’s helping spur some of these calls to legalize weed in Maryland.

And I wanted to turn to a clip where Speaker of the House Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller, both Democrats, were asked about legalization at the Annapolis summit, which was hosted by Marc Steiner. I want to turn to that clip and have you respond to that.

We’re going to have a taskforce between the House and the Senate to deal with recreational marijuana on the House side. The majority leader Kathy Dumais will head that up. We will put a structure in place before we send it to referendum for the people in the state of Maryland to decide if it’s legal.

MARC STEINER: How many of those people who are in jail now, most of whom are African American in our state, even though whites and blacks use marijuana at the same exact rates, maybe white folks even more than black folks–the majority of people in jail for marijuana are black, not white. And in our system, and systems across the country. So does that mean if it’s passed, if it comes up in the legislature, that we have to go back and say, OK, these people need to have their records expunged, be freed from prison, not do time because it was only marijuana?

We’re doing that right now with justice [inaudible]. And we’re going to continue to work for justice [reinvestment]. But that doesn’t mean that dealers go free. Dealers are going to stay in jail.

JAISAL NOOR: So that last clip was Mike Miller, the Senate president in Maryland, a Democrat. You know, he’s saying, you know, we’re not going to let–so Marc Steiner asks, you know, what about people in jail for selling marijuana? Most of them are black, as we know. Are you going to do some type of restorative thing for them? And the answer was no. You know, do the crime, do the time.

NEILL FRANKLIN: Let me tell you the problem with that. Two points to make real quick, here. The evidence is clear that the prohibition of marijuana was based upon race and class. The evidence is there. You can do your own research and look at newspapers from back there in the ’30s and ’40s. You know, you can do your research on Harry Anslinger, who was a drug czar back then. It’s crystal clear that it was based upon race and class. Blacks, Mexicans, jazz musicians, and more.

The second–so with that, just that alone, we need to end it. And we’re ending it. The second thing is it used to be a crime for a black to marry a white. When they changed that law, for anyone who had been prosecuted because they married outside of their race, and now we ended that law, do we still leave those people in jail? Do we still leave that mark on their records when the law has been used inappropriately, and established on a foundation of race, and now we end it? It’s just morally correct, morally right, to go back and look at those people who have been convicted of the, of that law, of that crime, and to make it right. To clear that off of their records. And if you’re currently incarcerated, you need to be set free. You need to be able to go home.

JAISAL NOOR: And finally, Brandon, your thoughts about where this is all going to end up? Because, you know, it took your eight-month-long investigation to even bring these numbers out.

BRANDON SODERBERG: And it should have taken, like, three days. In any sane democracy you should get this data almost immediately. But yeah, it took eight months.

JAISAL NOOR: Yeah. And so, going forward, have there been reactions to your piece in the mainstream media? And do you think this might sort of change the conversation in Baltimore today, and across the state?

BRANDON SODERBERG: I mean, I won’t flatter myself to think that it’ll change the conversation. But I mean, we have got some nice responses from some places that don’t always respond to the kind of journalism, advocacy-based journalism, that I try to do and that I do with the nonprofit that I run with Baynard Woods. You know, the Baltimore Sun editorial board sort of praised the research, which was great. The Root was very happy about it, particularly praised something that we decided to do, because we were white reporters and a white researcher, was to not use the word marijuana because of its racist origins. Going back to what Neill said with Anslinger; that was really Mexican slang that was sort of created. I think people still use it sometimes; it sounds like a scientific word or something, but it’s not. So I appreciate that from the Root, that was cool.

I mean, I think we clearly–we’re making a slow but steady crawl towards legalization, and part of that has to include some kind of racial parity. We need to get people out of jail, whether they’re dealers or not. I mean, I think something that’s very frustrating with the clip you showed was we’ve gotten to this point where we now understand that drug use and sometimes so-called drug addiction or dependency is a health issue. And so now we’ve sort of shifted to this thing that we want to still demonize the dealers. And again, what the speaker’s talking about in the clip is about pot dealers. Like, you know, the guy down the street that probably plays bass and sells you seed. Like, this is not–not that–I mean, again, I don’t think anyone–I think drugs should be legal. But the idea that-

NEILL FRANKLIN: That’s how most weed is sold.

BRANDON SODERBERG: Right. So weed dealers are not–especially weed dealers are not something–there’s not this vast division between weed dealers and weed buyers, whereas there is maybe a little more of a concern when it comes the so-called harder drugs.

JAISAL NOOR: And finally Neill, are there any good models for legalization that sort of prioritize some type of restorative justice in the process? I think Oakland started giving out dispensary licenses to those formerly incarcerated. Can you talk a little bit about that?

NEILL FRANKLIN: Yeah, so the initial plan for California’s policy going forward was to reinvest those tax dollars into communities that had been devastated by the war on drugs. You know, Oakland is one of those communities. And what we’re also seeing, what you mentioned, is that as licenses are being applied for–we saw this problem here in Maryland with medical cannabis, where if you didn’t have the money, if you didn’t have the connections, if you didn’t have the capital, you just couldn’t play. And California designed its policies so that most people can play. If you’ve been, you know, convicted in the past, yes, there’s still a way that you can participate in the business going forward. Because if we don’t have a way for economic empowerment for those people who have been persecuted by these policies, we’re still in a very, very bad place. And so Oakland, you’re right, is really leading the way in this area. And again, California has backslid a little bit, but I think we recognize that, and now they’re going to push forward to make those opportunities available for people.

JAISAL NOOR: I want to thank you both for joining us. Neill Franklin, 34-year police veteran; Brandon Soderberg, your piece was called Structural Racism and Cannabis: Black Baltimoreans Still Disproportionately Arrested for Weed After Decriminalization. It’s in the Baltimore Fishbowl, and it was made in collaboration with the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. We’ll link to it in this story.


JAISAL NOOR: Thank you both for joining us.

NEILL FRANKLIN: Thanks, Jaisal.

JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

Neill Franklin

Neill Franklin is the executive director of The Law Enforcement Action Partnership, otherwise known as LEAP. He's a 33-year police veteran whose led multi-jurisdictional anti-narcotics task forces for the Maryland state police and ran training centers for the Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland State Police.

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.