Baltimore prosecutors lighten up on marijuana possession

But thousands still charged, jamming court dockets

April 20, 2013|By Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

Caught with a couple of joints he didn't get the chance to light up, Eric Staton was ordered to appear before a Baltimore judge. Two weeks later, in a basement courtroom on North Avenue, prosecutors said they would drop the possession charge if Staton agreed to pick up trash for five hours.

Staton, 42, hesitated before taking the deal.

"Ten grams is nothing," he told a spectator during the hearing. "They should legalize that marijuana."

In recent years, Maryland has taken small steps to scale back laws against possession of marijuana. This year state lawmakers turned down a move to decriminalize the drug, but hundreds of smokers in Baltimore are taking advantage of deals offered by prosecutors to avoid jail time — and convictions on their records.

Even those who have been caught with the drug several times can find themselves directed back to community service programs.

Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, is keen on such marijuana "diversion" programs, and more people are choosing that option. The programs, which have become popular in Maryland and across the country, provide a middle ground between the legalization favored by some and the criminalization that law enforcement officials see as a powerful tool to uncover evidence of more serious crimes.

While prosecutions have relaxed, and state lawmakers have laid out lesser penalties for possession of smaller amounts, possession arrests in the city continue to number in the thousands annually, and they fall disproportionately on black men.

And though many avoid conviction and jail time for possession, others face the full force of the law, especially if they have previous convictions or have faced multiple marijuana charges.

A move toward full decriminalization fell short in the General Assembly this month, though legislators passed a limited medical marijuana law. Advocates say the state should make a definitive decision on the issue.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin says the state is wasting police, prosecutorial and judicial resources chasing marijuana. Speaking at a recent hearing in Annapolis, the Baltimore County Democrat told colleagues that a change last year that softened penalties for possession of less than 10 grams was just "nibbling around the edges."

"We've pushed it about as far as we can," Zirkin said.

Bernstein said changes to the law need to be considered carefully. He said offering a possession suspect a deal has the twin benefits of freeing up space on the court docket and giving the defendant a way to avoid a criminal record.

Almost a quarter of the people charged with possession in Baltimore last year accepted diversion. The rate has more than doubled since Bernstein took over two years ago.

"It's difficult enough to find employment, education opportunities, things of that nature," Bernstein said. "But if you have a criminal record, it becomes that much more difficult."

Prosecutors in 15 Maryland counties have similar programs, but most are open only to first-time offenders. Bernstein has been offering community service even to defendants facing their second or third charge, though prosecutors can still pursue serious punishment against some offenders.

Staton said picking up trash is better than a spell behind bars — but added that the inconvenience of being arrested and having to come to court should be punishment enough.

Still, when a judge asked if he wanted to take the offer for his arrest in the 300 block of W. Franklin St., Staton accepted it with a "yes, I guess."

"Nobody wants to be in the state [prison] system," Staton said. "But you've got people here crashing cars and killing people. No one killed anyone for a bag of weed."

Staton, who was arrested in the 5100 block of Park Heights Ave. for possession a second time shortly before his court appearance, said that a criminal record can make it difficult to find work. After his first few arrests, he said, he gave up on getting a steady job.

Staton said he makes money under the table cleaning cars and doing other odd jobs. He lives with his mother in Northeast Baltimore.

Police in Maryland continue to make marijuana arrests, but in many cases, the amounts of contraband are small. The majority of possession charges filed in Baltimore since the law changed in October have been for less than 10 grams.

About 1,800 people had been charged with the lesser offense, according to the state's attorney's office. Slightly more than 1,200 have been charged with possessing larger amounts.

Staton was arrested after officers smelled dope on him one Wednesday evening late in March, according to the citation he was clutching in court. Police said he made no effort to hide what he had.

"He stated without persuasion 'I got weed on me,' " an officer wrote in the charging document.

Such arrests are common. On the day Staton was sentenced to picking up trash, the courtroom was packed with suspects charged with possession — something many said they see as barely criminal.

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