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Ahead of Juneteenth, Maryland Pardons 175K Pot Convictions, Seeking to Remedy Harms of War on Drugs

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We host a roundtable conversation on Maryland Governor Wes Moore’s historic pardons of 175,000 marijuana-related convictions in the state, including drug paraphernalia-related convictions. Jheanelle Wilkins is the chair of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus; Maritza Perez Medina is the director of federal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance; and Jason Ortiz, who was himself arrested at the age of 16 for cannabis possession, is director of strategic initiatives at the Last Prisoner Project. “It’s incumbent upon us to make sure we take action to repair the harms” of the war on drugs, says Wilkins. Maryland legalized the use of recreational marijuana in 2022, but the mass pardons provide historic relief for those who faced criminal consequences while the drug was illegal. Moore says he timed the pardons for the week of Juneteenth, the federal holiday on June 19 to mark the end of slavery in the United States — a symbolic move that underlines the disproportionate impact of drug criminalization on Black communities. Our guests call on other states and the federal government to follow Maryland’s example, as we also discuss the Biden administration’s recent descheduling of marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule III drug. “This needs to go further,” says Medina. “We want to make sure we’re also focusing on community investment and retroactive relief,” adds Ortiz.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Maryland, where Governor Wes Moore made history Monday by issuing a sweeping executive order to, quote, “right a lot of historical wrongs,” unquote, by wiping out low-level marijuana convictions.

GOV. WES MOORE: This morning, with deep pride and soberness, I will pardon over 175,000 convictions.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Moore’s move comes after Maryland legalized the use of recreational marijuana in 2022 when voters approved a constitutional amendment. The pardons will automatically forgive misdemeanor marijuana possession charges in Maryland’s electronic court records system, as well as misdemeanor paraphernalia charges related to marijuana. The pardons do not impact anyone currently incarcerated. Governor Moore said he timed the pardons for this week of Juneteenth, the federal holiday on June 19th to mark the end of slavery in the United States.

GOV. WES MOORE: We know that legalization does not turn back the clock on decades of harm that was caused by this war on drugs. Legalization does not erase the fact that nearly half of all drug arrests in Maryland during the early 2000s were for cannabis. It doesn’t erase the fact that Black Marylanders were three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white Marylanders before legalization. It doesn’t erase the fact that having a conviction on your record means a harder time with everything — everything — from housing to employment to education.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Maryland Governor Wes Moore speaking Monday, the first Black governor in Maryland’s 246-year history. He was joined by Anthony Brown, Maryland’s first African American attorney general.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ANTHONY BROWN: Data uncontrovertibly shows that Black and Latino and white Americans use cannabis at the same rate, yet Black and Latino Americans are arrested, charged and convicted at higher rates. Plainly put, the enforcement of cannabis laws has not been color blind; it’s been unequal treatment under the law. …

Maryland is a work in progress. The shackles of slavery, though physically removed, left an indelible mark on our state and our nation. The promise of Reconstruction was replaced by Jim Crow laws that stripped free Black people of our rights and treated us like second-class citizens. After the Civil War, instead of freedom, we experienced the emergence of the convict leasing system, that exploited Black labor under the guise of punishment.

Our current reality of disproportionate arrests and convictions are the residuals of slavery. The war on drugs was a war on communities of color. The data shows the deeply rooted bias in drug-related arrests and sentencing. Cannabis convictions for hundreds of thousands of people here in Maryland were scarlet letters, modern-day shackles. This morning, I can almost hear the clanging of those shackles falling to the floor with your pardon this morning, Governor. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the ACLU of Maryland notes anyone convicted of possession with intent to distribute can still face criminal penalties, including jail, despite the legalization of cannabis sales in the state. The penalty should be a civil fine, advocates have argued.

For more, we’re joined by three guests. Two of them were there Monday for this announcement. Jason Ortiz is the director of strategic initiatives at the Last Prisoner Project. His expertise on this issue stems in part from his arrest at age 16 for cannabis possession in Connecticut. We’re also joined by Maryland Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins, chair of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus. Also with us, Maritza Perez Medina, the director of federal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins, we’re going to turn to you first. We just played two clips of the two leading politicians in Maryland who were responsible for these 175,000 pardons. Both of them are African American. Governor Moore is the first African American governor of Maryland. And you are the chair of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus. Can you talk about the significance of this when it came to this historic move? And actually, who does this cover?

JHEANELLE WILKINS: Absolutely. As chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, the largest Black caucus in the country, we know that leadership matters and representation matters. And especially as we embark upon Juneteenth tomorrow, this is a historic moment that we are so proud of. Our governor is the only person in the entire state that has the ability to pardon, and so for him to use the power of the pen to not only pardon a few but to go big and also include various types of drug paraphernalia in his pardons really says a lot.

Unfortunately, the war on drugs really impacted Black communities. And it still continues today in Maryland in terms of the results of these types of criminal convictions, whether it’s housing, whether it’s education, whether it’s employment. So this really provides an impactful opportunity for equity and for those impacted to be able to live their full lives.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Delegate, could you talk a little bit more about how these convictions on people’s records affect their ability to obtain housing, employment and education?

JHEANELLE WILKINS: Absolutely. One of the pieces of legislation, actually, that the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland had as a priority this legislative session deals with banning the box on housing. When people apply, for example, to live in an apartment, they are oftentimes asked about their criminal convictions. And so, even with something like cannabis, where we have legalized it in the state of Maryland, we have an equitable framework for how cannabis licenses are distributed, and we make sure that it’s as inclusive as possible, people still bear the brunt of maybe having a cannabis conviction and having to say that they have that on their record when they are pursuing housing, and a landlord can decide that they don’t want that person to live there. And so, we did push legislation this year, which we will be reintroducing — and it was sponsored by Delegate Adrian Boafo from Price George’s County — to ensure that we ban the box when it comes to housing, so that individuals are able to really apply for housing, be able to access housing, and for it to be something that is not a barrier for individuals with criminal convictions.

Similarly with obtaining certain licenses in the state of Maryland, there are sometimes background checks and criminal checks, where something like a conviction for cannabis could prevent them from being able to obtain those licenses. So we see time and time again where those criminal convictions that were fueled by the war on drugs, despite the fact that Black people consume cannabis the same rate as other communities — we see that we are criminalized and convicted, charged, arrested more than any other community. It’s unjust. It’s unfair. And the governor taking this action really puts us on the path towards equity in our state.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Maritza Perez Medina, who’s director of federal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. Maritza, what’s your response to the governor’s actions? And did it go far enough, as far as you’re concerned?

MARITZA PEREZ MEDINA: I think it’s great. This really is a sweeping pardon that’s affecting hundreds of thousands of people. And what made this pardon distinct was the fact that it included paraphernalia. I would like other governors to take similar action. I also want to say I also, you know, commend the governor for really couching this as a racial justice issue. We know that the war on drugs has targeted communities of color, so the relief should also target those communities. And the governor was very clear about that. So, yes, this is really a historic announcement, and I hope to see other governors take similar action.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about what is happening around the country when it comes to this, and exactly what precedent Maryland has set here?

MARITZA PEREZ MEDINA: Yeah. So, as I said, Maryland really set a precedent by including not just simple possession charges in this pardon announcement, but also paraphernalia charges. And this really opened the door to having more people have their records expunged, which is really, really exciting news.

Like I said, it would be great for more governors to pick up a similar initiative, but really what we need is, you know, federal relief. I know that people are excited about the rescheduling review that the Biden administration is currently undertaking. At the Drug Policy Alliance, we think that this needs to go further. We need to actually deschedule marijuana and remove it from the Controlled Substances Act. It’s important for folks around the country to understand that moving marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule III on the CSA will still maintain criminalization and federal prohibition. In fact, it’s probably going to be incumbent on states to take more action, just given that at the federal government, very little will change.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Jason Ortiz into this conversation. Jason, you are director of strategic initiatives at the Last Prisoner Project. You were there yesterday for this historic moment. But tell us your own personal story. Tell us what happened to you when you were 16 and how that shaped the rest of your life.

JASON ORTIZ: Yeah. Thank you, Amy. It’s an honor to be here today.

And as you mentioned, I was arrested at the age of 16 in high school in Norwich, Connecticut. I was actually smoking with some friends on the way to school. And as soon as we got there, we were surrounded by security guards. They were kind of rough with us a little bit. It was one of the first times I’ve ever been like seriously in trouble. And when the police showed up, I realized that this was going to be something very different than I’ve ever experienced before. And I can tell you, whenever somebody puts chains on you, puts handcuffs on you, drug policy becomes a very real thing very quickly.

And so, for me, I got expelled from school, so I lost two years of my high school career. I was alone and isolated for most of that time. I had to do afterschool work while all my friends were actually out enjoying their lives. And so, for a very long time, I was isolated. I had to go to court countless times. And my parents, who were not wealthy — they were two union-working parents — had to pay tens of thousands in legal fees just to make sure I wasn’t permanently incarcerated. And it really derailed my entire life.

But thanks to the work of advocates, that were able to change the Higher Education Act’s federal aid elimination penalty, I was able to go on to college and actually get my degree from the University of Connecticut. So, I was negatively impacted by the war on drugs, but also positively impacted by the movement to change it and end it.

And so, yesterday was a historic day to be able to actually be a part of that. One of the charges that I did get as a youth was possession of paraphernalia, and it did actually increase the amount of potential time I could have served. And so, to actually see the governor move on from simple possession shows the momentum of this movement, the momentum of this moment. And as Maritza said before, we do need to expand this to include other charges. I do believe that things like distribution and cultivation should also be included in these types of pardons. But as folks have said before, we do need federal action to really rectify the harms done by the war on drugs.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to ask Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins, the work that still needs to be done. You’ve been very vocal about the issue of traffic stops by police who claim to smell cannabis when they stop a driver. You’ve got legislation — you’ve helped to co-sponsor legislation on that issue. Could you talk about that work that still has to be done?

JHEANELLE WILKINS: Absolutely. The Black Caucus was very proud to work last year to pass legislation that ensures that just the smell and scent of cannabis does not allow an officer to search someone’s car. And that was a really important bill, because we saw that all across the state that Black people and people of color were being disproportionately pulled over due to the alleged scent of cannabis and being searched. So that was really important.

But there’s a lot of work still to be done on this issue. For example, it’s critical that we create and develop more automatic expungements. When we talk about these criminal records that people live with and bear the brunt of the challenges associated with having these convictions on their record, being able to automatically expunge them and expand the types of crimes, as well, that can be expungeable is absolutely critical as we are on this path towards equity. And that’s one of the top things that the Legislature really wants to take a look at. We know that in the state of Maryland, Black Marylanders are about 29% of our state, but we represent 70% of the criminal population. And there is work to be done. And take a look at those cases with legislation such as the Second Look Act, that’s been introduced several times, to take a look at people who are in the system for 20 or more years, and assess their crimes and decide if they should be eligible for release.

So, there are a number of actions that we need to continue to take as we make to work our justice system more equitable. But we praise the governor. We are so proud of his bold and sweeping actions. And we are looking forward to continuing to work with him to make our state more equitable and leave no one behind.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jason, I wanted to ask you — cannabis legalization has become big business in many states around the country that have legalized it. Could you talk about the ability of African American and Latino communities to participate in the new economic — mushrooming economic profits that are resulting from cannabis?

JASON ORTIZ: Yeah. And as part of the — one of the founders of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, we worked on what was called social equity policies. And we really believe that there’s no such thing as social justice without economic justice. And so, we created lots of different pathways. But it’s been a fight. It’s been really difficult to make sure that folks have access to licensing and capital. But we are seeing those operations are starting up and actually moving. And so, both Latino and African American communities are able to access this, but it is something that is not exactly easy. They have to really struggle. They have to find partners. There’s all kinds of complicated licensing requirements. And so we do encourage all of the governors to make this issue one of a priority for them, so that we can see economic justice come to our communities through social equity programs. They’re being challenged around the country. We’ve seen different types of businesses file lawsuits in order to prevent equity programs from progressing.

And equity programs are not just about licensing and ownership. They’re also about community investment, because our communities were overpoliced and disenfranchised economically. And so, we do want to make sure that not only are we focusing on the business side, but we’re reinvesting in those communities, building schools and hospitals and other sources that they need, and making sure that as we do that, we’re also investing in reentry programs, in restorative justice, to make sure that everyone that is currently incarcerated is released. So far, zero states have actually released all of their cannabis prisoners when legalization happened. So, while the business side is important, we want to make sure we’re also focusing on community investment and retroactive relief.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re starting a business, Jason Ortiz, in Puerto Rico? A growing business?

JASON ORTIZ: Yes. We got a license for a cultivation facility in Puerto Rico, in my hometown of Añasco, Puerto Rico, actually. I am Puerto Rican. My family is from Añasco. And it is something that I’m very proud of, that we are able to move on that particular type of business in Puerto Rico and bring some economic activity and economic justice to my home island and all of the 5 million Puerto Ricans around the country. But even there, we want to make sure that we are supporting the political struggles on the island. You know, cultivation of cannabis is something I care about very deeply, but the island is definitely dealing with its own struggles with LUMA and the electricity, and there’s many issues that they’re working on there. So I want to make sure as we talk about anything regarding business in Puerto Rico, we’re also talking about the economic and social justice that my people need.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Maritza Perez Medina back into this conversation, with the Drug Policy Alliance. How does this ruling, but also, at a federal level, the Biden administration, affect immigrants, reclassifying marijuana?

MARITZA PEREZ MEDINA: Thank you so much for asking that question, because I think this is something that’s not talked about enough, and it’s really important that we educate the public about this. So, let me be clear: The Biden administration deciding to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III is called rescheduling and still maintains criminalization, still maintains federal prohibition. This means that marijuana use will continue to be illegal. And this is really important for folks who are noncitizens. If you’re a noncitizen, you have to abide by federal immigration law. So, until we federally legalize marijuana, people will be susceptible to immigration consequences and, of course, criminal charges. So it’s very important for noncitizens to understand that. Even if you’re in a state where marijuana is already legal or decriminalized, you can still face federal consequences because of marijuana’s status on the Controlled Substances Act. So, unfortunately, rescheduling marijuana, moving it to Schedule III, will not have an impact on noncitizens. In fact, it will have very little impact on people in their daily lives.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maritza, how would you characterize the differences in policies between what President Biden has done and what his predecessor, and now challenger, Donald Trump, did when he was president, in terms of drug policy and especially cannabis?

MARITZA PEREZ MEDINA: Yeah. So, I’ll start with marijuana. You know, as I said at the top of this call, we support descheduling marijuana. So, of course, rescheduling marijuana, as the Biden administration has done, doesn’t go far enough for us. But I have to say it’s still a significant step, in the sense that rescheduling marijuana and moving it to III means that the federal government is finally recognizing that marijuana isn’t susceptible to abuse, as other Schedule I drugs are, and does have medical value. That’s important and significant. But in order to really eliminate criminal consequences, we need to deschedule marijuana.

But how he compares to his predecessor, in addition to marijuana, I will say, you know, this is the first administration that has really supported harm reduction policies. Harm reduction means meeting people who use drugs where they’re at. It means supporting people so that one day they can access treatment, if that’s what suits them. That’s historic. We haven’t had a president who has embraced that and really addressed problematic drug use through that health lens. On the other hand, you have folks like, you know, former President Biden [sic] who’s running a campaign right now talking about prosecuting and, in fact, imposing the death penalty on people who sell drugs. So, very, very different approaches when it comes to drug policy.

AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, I wanted to turn back to Maryland Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins, who is chair of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus. If you can talk about cannabis prisoners, what Jason just referred to, what happens to those currently incarcerated, and what further actions you feel the federal government and President Biden should take in pardoning nonviolent drug offenses across the country?

JHEANELLE WILKINS: Absolutely. We did take action as the Legislature to allow resentencing. So, part of the complication around cannabis criminalization and cannabis convictions is that oftentimes it’s associated with other crimes. It’s sometimes not just a cannabis possession charge, but it’s also associated with other — maybe a gun charge or other types of charges. So, part of what we are trying to sift through is making sure that more individuals are able to be released, especially those who are connected with other crimes in terms of their arrest. We did go the route of resentencing, so that individuals who are charged with cannabis who are still in prison, their crimes should be reviewed, so that we can take a look at if they can be reduced or released. So, that’s one of the provisions that we did work on to ensure that we’re looking at those who are incarcerated, who currently do have cannabis possession types of charges. I will mention that it’s absolutely a priority for the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland for all individuals who have these types of cannabis charges to be released, and that we go further in terms of, again, automatic expungements, banning the box, and really getting rid of all of the collateral consequences and impacts of that war on drugs and the criminalization of Marylanders due to cannabis.

And again, with us being so close to Juneteenth, we know that when we know better, we have to do better. So, there were laws in the past that were legal, and actions that were unconscionable that were legal, that we’re reflecting on this week, and now we know were not right. And by the same token, we know that there are things in the past that were illegal, and we know better now. And it’s incumbent upon us to ensure that we take actions to repair the harms. We’re grateful for the leadership and the focus on equity by Governor Wes Moore. We are so proud of him and so excited about the future of Maryland and the path toward equity that we are on.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Maryland Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins, we thank you so much for joining us, chair of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus, also Jason Ortiz, director of strategic initiatives at the Last Prisoner Project, and Maritza Perez Medina of the Drug Policy Alliance. Thanks, all, so much.

We also want to encourage you to tune in on Wednesday for our Juneteenth special with Clint Smith, author of the book How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.

CLINT SMITH: When I think of Juneteenth, part of what I think about is the both/andedness of it, that it is this moment in which we mourn the fact that freedom was kept from hundreds of thousands of enslaved people for years and for months after it had been attained by them, and then, at the same time, celebrating the end of one of the most egregious things that this country has ever done.

AMY GOODMAN: Also in our Juneteenth special, we will speak with the pioneering musical artist Rhiannon Giddens. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her opera Omar, about Omar ibn Said, a Muslim scholar in Africa sold into slavery in the 1800s.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: It’s just so amazing that Omar’s story has been — is being lifted by this opera, being lifted by the existence of this work, and more and more people are knowing about him, because the whole point for me was to complicate the — again, the complication — to complicate the American narrative, like who gets to say that they represent the American story.

AMY GOODMAN: Rhiannon Giddens and Clint Smith on our Juneteenth special on Wednesday. Tune in and tell your friends and family.

Coming up, Holocaust and genocide scholar Raz Segal. Eight months ago, the Israeli historian became one of the first scholars to accuse Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. Last week, the University of Minnesota rescinded its job offer to him to head the school’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Stay with us.

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