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When marijuana is decriminalized, what about prior convictions?

After Maryland decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, thousands are still stuck with their criminal records

BALTIMORE – It was only two grams of pot, perhaps enough to roll four joints.

In 2008, Diamonte Brown was pulled over in Baltimore for a tail light. She says the officer ordered her to step out of the vehicle, handcuffed her and told her the car reeked of marijuana. Police dogs were called and she was quickly arrested.

And with that, her life plans were altered forever.

"Everyone tells you, 'Go to school and do what you're supposed to do, you're going to have a great job one day and you're going to be well off,'" she said. "It ended, to me, looking like it was a lie."

In 2013, after earning a degree in sports education at the University of Michigan, Brown returned to her home state in the hope of teaching kids lacrosse at a Baltimore school. But the Baltimore City Public Schools determined that her criminal record made her ineligible to teach. After conducting a background check of her, an email (below) was circulated within the school district saying, “Don’t ever let Diamonte near your kids."  

Courtesy of Diamonte Brown

Brown says that because she was able to  hire a lawyer, she was given "probation before judgment," which meant a fine and rehab for 12 weeks, but no conviction. Her arrest record, however, remained.

The red states are where marijuana has been decriminalized. The blue states are where it's been legalized.
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"I pretty much went into a deep depression," said Brown. "Unfortunately, this charge made me have to apply for public assistance … and I had to take a job working part-time overnight because I couldn't find any other employment."

Possessing the small amount of marijuana that Brown had in her car is no longer an arrestable offense in Maryland. In October, anything less than 10 grams became a civil offense, like a traffic ticket. Fourteen other states have also decriminalized small amounts of the drug, and four have legalized it altogether. But the old laws continue to haunt many like Brown, who are left paying the price for something that's no longer a crime.

"The real punishment was the stigma," Brown said. "The real punishment was that people no longer honored all of the good things I did. Now I was being judged based on my worst moment. That's the worst part." 

Second chances

Neill Franklin
Courtesy of Neill Franklin

According to an analysis by the ACLU, more than 7 million Americans were arrested for marijuana possession between 2001 and 2010. And despite white Americans having similar marijuana usage, blacks are more than three and a half times more likely to be arrested.

"Saying it's a war on drugs is just a nice way of saying 'war on black people,'" said Brown. "When they created the war on drugs, all of the propaganda was around black people and black communities – about crack."

The war on drugs is the main reason blocks and blocks of Baltimore are so derelict, according to Neill Franklin, a former Maryland state and Baltimore city police officer. The Sandtown neighborhood, where Freddie Gray lived before his death in police custody, is a prime example, he says: Once home to a thriving middle class, one in five residents today doesn't have a job, nearly one-third live in poverty and the drug trade is the primary economy.

You can get over an addiction, but you'll never, ever get over a conviction. Never.

Neill Franklin

of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

"In this city, like many other cities, fighting the war on drugs … it's 60 to 70 percent of what we do every day," said Franklin, who now leads a group of 150,000 law enforcement workers and supporters working to end drug prohibition. "…We can no longer continue this notion of trying to solve a public health issue with criminal justice solutions … You can get over an addiction, but you'll never, ever get over a conviction. Never."

Gov. Larry Hogan signing the Second Chance Act into law on May 12.
America Tonight

Earlier this month, Gov. Larry Hogan signed a bill into law – the Second Chance Act – allowing Marylanders who were convicted of certain minor crimes, including marijuana possession, to "shield" their court and police record after a three-year waiting period, essentially wiping the offense off their records to the general public. But unlike expungement, the record still exists for law enforcement purposes. 

The Second Chance Act will make tens of thousands more employable, according to the bill's sponsor, state Delegate Curt Anderson.  

"Our city has the highest unemployment rate amongst African-American males, anywhere in the state, probably very high in the country," he told America Tonight. "And one of the major drawbacks for our guys getting jobs is a minor criminal record; just one thing here or one thing there, where they can't even get through the door."

Unfair to employers?

But the new law has some detractors. Former Baltimore County police officer – and now state Delegate John Cluster says he combed through arrest records to get a better understanding of the kind of people who would find relief through Second Chance.  Cluster says that the first name he looked up had 24 convictions on his record since 2006, and would be able to "shield" 23 of them from an employer.

"Out of the 23, 13 of them were drug convictions, for possession of heroin, possession of cocaine, possession of methamphetamines," said Cluster. "So this business owner is going to talk to this person and say, 'Hey, have you ever been convicted of a crime?' They're going to say, 'Yes, one time.'"

Diamonte Brown is now the director of the advocacy group Out for Justice.
America Tonight

Cluster believes the law is unfair to employers, because a heavy drug rap sheet could indicate a drug problem as well as a theft risk, which a business owner has a right to know.

But Brown believes ex-offenders have a right to work. She says this country tells its people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but “the reality is that we continue to give people with criminal records no opportunity to do that."

Brown now runs Out for Justice, an organization that lobbies for people with criminal records. She doesn't have one of those anymore though. Brown managed to get her record expunged, thanks to a lawyer and around 12,000 calls, she guesses, to the court clerk. She recognizes that it was her "privilege" – an education, money for a lawyer and a support system – that allowed her to finally put her past in the past and get a job teaching English as a second language to young adults in Sandtown.  

"I do not want to be the director of Out for Justice," she said. "But I can't stop doing it, because I know there are a group of people that need someone that understands their issues and that is going to fight and lead."

And as lawmakers wrestle with this turning point in the war on drugs, Brown has a simple request.

"How about saying, '20 percent of our legislative aides are going to be ex-offenders'?” she said. “What better [way] to bridge the gap between a lawmaker and a lawbreaker than to have them work together?"

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