The governor of the US state of Maryland issued a mass pardon of drug offenses on Monday, in a far-reaching move forgiving 175,000 low-level marijuana convictions across multiple decades.

Democrat Wes Moore said his act — “the most sweeping state-level pardon” in American history — was aimed at addressing social and economic injustices disproportionately impacting tens of thousands of Black people.

Moore, the eastern state’s first Black governor, said he intended to right the “decades of harm” wrought by drug policy that had disproportionately targeted African Americans, depriving them of access to housing, education and employment.

Nearly half of all state drug arrests during the early 2000s were for cannabis, he said, with Black Marylanders three times more likely to be detained over cannabis-related charges than white residents.

And while the state’s population of six million is 33 percent Black, more than 70 percent of Maryland’s male incarcerated population is Black.

“Today, we take a big step enacting the kinds of policies that can reverse the harm of the past and to help us to work together to build a brighter future,” Moore said as he signed the pardons into law in a ceremony in state capital Annapolis.

After a state-wide referendum, Maryland legalized cannabis for adults and retail sales of the drug in 2023.

The governor said the pardons would extend to anyone with a misdemeanor conviction for possession of marijuana or paraphernalia.

He added that the scope of the pardons — affecting some 100,000 people — amounted to a “sweeping and unapologetic” executive action by officials looking to erase criminal justice inequities as more states nationwide ease marijuana laws.

Cannabis is a multibillion-dollar business in the United States, with more than half of states having legalized recreational and medicinal use, a liberalization overwhelmingly supported by Americans, according to polling.

But it is classified by the federal government as a Schedule I drug — the same level as heroin, ecstasy and LSD — meaning it is deemed to have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

In 2022, Joe Biden became the first US president to initiate a federal review of marijuana policy to bring it more in line with public opinion. 

The president recently proposed downgrading marijuana to a Schedule III drug, putting it alongside substances like ketamine and painkillers containing codeine, considered to have a moderate to low likelihood of dependence.

That wouldn’t make it legal, but it could lead to fewer arrests at the federal level.

The issue is seen as a potential vote winner for Biden as he faces Republican Donald Trump in a tough election rematch this November, especially among younger people that the Democratic incumbent is struggling to court.

“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,” said Maryland’s Attorney General Anthony Brown.

“This morning, I can almost hear the clanging of those shackles falling to the floor,” Brown said.

The pardons will not result in anyone being released from jail, the governor’s office said.

The action was cheered by criminal justice reform activists including Jason Ortiz of the Last Prisoner Project, who recounted being arrested at 16 for cannabis possession.

“I was thrown out of school, denied access to my high school education, ripped from my family and my friends, and had to endure two years of isolation for a simple cannabis possession charge,” he said.

“The Last Prisoner Project applauds Governor Moore and his administration’s actions to rectify the historic racial disparities caused by cannabis prohibition… Today is literally the most powerful day in cannabis justice history for the entire nation. That’s an incredible thing,” Ortiz said.


”}]] The governor of the US state of Maryland issued a mass pardon of drug offenses on Monday, in a far-reaching move forgiving 175,000 low-level marijuana convictions across multiple decades.  Read More