301.519.9237 exdirector@nesaus.org

6.17.24 – Washington Post – By Katie MettlerErin Cox and Katie Shepherd

How will Maryland’s pardon on marijuana convictions work? Here’s what we know.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) on June 17 issued pardons for 175,000 low-level criminal marijuana convictions — one of the nation’s most sweeping clemency acts that could affect as many as 100,000 people who were convicted on certain possession charges in Maryland state courts over the past four decades.

The move will create a record of formal forgiveness and is part of a national movement to unwind criminal justice inequities as marijuana use is increasingly legalized. Maryland voters approved a ballot measure in 2022 to decriminalize cannabis, and Moore said his action was aimed at healing social and economic disparities for communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana convictions.

“We cannot celebrate the benefit of legalization if we do not address the consequences of criminalization,” Moore said before signing the order that made the pardons official.

Here’s a look at what the governor’s mass pardon means and whom it will affect.

Who is being pardoned?

Return to menu

Moore’s pardon actionwill automatically forgive every misdemeanor marijuana possession charge the Maryland judiciary could locate in the state’s electronic court records system, along with every misdemeanor paraphernalia charge tied to use or possession of marijuana. Maryland is the only state to pardon such paraphernalia charges, state officials said.

What are Maryland’s weed laws?

A budding marijuana plant grows at the Verano cultivation facility in Jessup, MD on June 14, 2023. (Minh Connors/The Washington Post)

Recreational marijuana is legal in Maryland. Here’s what we know about Maryland’s relaxed marijuana laws, which went into effect in 2023, clearing the way for adults 21 and older to buy and use the drug recreationally.

The pardons include more than 150,000 misdemeanor convictions for simple possession of cannabis and more than 18,000 misdemeanor convictions for use or possession with intent to use drug paraphernalia. An estimated 100,000 people will be pardoned — some of more than one conviction. The pardons also apply to people who are dead.

The electronic records in some Maryland jurisdictions date to the 1980s, while others begin in the 1990s or later. The pardons are automatic, but people with cannabis convictions so old that they’re stored on paper can apply for one.

What’s the purpose of a pardon?

A pardon does not undo the fact that the conduct — in this case, misdemeanor possession of marijuana or paraphernalia — was illegal at the time of prosecution, but it forgives the legal consequences of the criminal conviction. A pardon is designed to stop future punishment or penalties for the forgiven offense.

In announcing the pardons, Moore directly addressed how policies in Maryland and nationwide have systematically held back people of color — through incarceration and restricted access to jobs, education and housing. A conviction, he said, “means a harder time for everything.”

“We’re talking about tools that have led to an eight-to-one racial wealth gap in our state,” he said, “because we know that we do not get to an eight-to-one racial wealth gap because one group is working eight times harder.”

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender, some prosecutors and civil rights advocates praised the move from Moore, saying it was a step toward remedying racial injustice in Maryland. In a statement, the ACLU of Maryland said there is more work to do — pointing out that people 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.

Why is this happening now?

Return to menu

The governor’s office said the pardons were timed to coincide with the Juneteenth holiday, a day that has come to symbolize the end of slavery in the United States. Moore, a rising star in the Democratic Party and the lone Black governor of a U.S. state, has built his ascent on the promise to “leave no one behind.” He promised during his inaugural address to tackle racial inequities in Maryland, which is known for being one of the worst states in the country for disproportionately incarcerating Black people for any crimes.

For the first time, Maryland has Black leaders at the helm and they are dedicated to directly addressing inequities their communities have faced for generations.

Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

“Plainly put: The enforcement of cannabis laws has not been colorblind; it’s been unequal treatment under the law,” Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown (D) said at Monday’s pardon announcement. “Cannabis convictions for hundreds of thousands of people here in Maryland were scarlet letters, modern-day shackles. This morning, I can almost hear the clang of those shackles falling to the floor.”

Nine other states and multiple cities have pardoned hundreds of thousands of old marijuana convictions in recent years as use of the drug has become legalized more widely, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Maryland voters approved a ballot measure that legalized recreational cannabis sales in 2022, spurring state lawmakers to set up a regulatory framework for an adult-use market that opened on July 1, 2023. It is the only government in the D.C. region that has fully legalized cannabis sales, though the District and Virginia have decriminalized possession and have gray markets for the drug.

How do I know if I’ve been pardoned?

Return to menu

While other states that have issued mass pardons have publicly published the names of those eligible, Maryland officials said they chose not to do that because of the barriers those with marijuana convictions face. Instead, the Maryland Judiciary will be placing notations acknowledging the pardon on the dockets of all relevant cases. Court officials estimate that it could take two weeks for records to reflect the pardons and up to 10 months for the convictions to be eliminated from criminal background check databases.

Those who want to check the status of their records can do so at Maryland Case Search, the state judiciary’s online repository for electronic court records, or by visiting the courthouse where the conviction occurred and speaking to a clerk.

Anyone who didn’t receive a pardon but thinks they should have can apply for one through the state.

Will these pardons get people out of prison?

The pardons won’t result people being released from incarceration. Maryland officials said the pardons do not apply to anyone who is currently behind bars. Misdemeanor cannabis charges yield short sentences and prosecutions for misdemeanor criminal possession have stopped, as possessing small amounts of the drug is legal statewide.

Does a pardon clear a criminal record?

No. A pardon forgives the conviction and means someone charged with the relevant crimes is no longer held responsible for the legal consequences. But record of the original conviction will still exist. To get that record destroyed and removed completely from public view, you must get it expunged.

How do I get my record expunged?

Records will be automatically expunged for people with cases in which the only charge was misdemeanor marijuana possession — about 40,000 of the 175,000 pardon cases, according to the governor’s office.

Anyone else seeking an expungement would have to request it from the court. According to the Maryland Judiciary, an expungement based on a pardon must be filed within 10 years from the date the governor signed the pardon. For more information on this process, contact the Maryland Parole Commission at 877-241-5428 or read these fact sheets from the Maryland Parole Commission and the Maryland Judiciary.

What Maryland communities are most affected by the pardons?

Demographic data on those pardoned is limited.

Moore’s administration said a quarter of the pardoned convictions were in Baltimore — a city with a history of unconstitutional over-policing of Black communities — even though less than 10 percent of the state’s population lives there. Roughly 12 percent of the pardoned convictions are in Prince George’s County, and 6 percent are in Montgomery County.

While Baltimore has the highest number of pardoned convictions, some of the rural parts of the state have even higher concentrations of convictions, relative to their populations. Beachfront Worcester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for example, has the highest number of convictions per capita in the state — 1,563 for every 10,000 residents.

Recreational marijuana in Maryland

The latest: A proposed bill for Maryland’s legal cannabis market is generating debate about what the billion-dollar industry should look like.

Is marijuana legal in Maryland? In 2022, Maryland voted to legalize recreational marijuana use beginning July 1, 2023, adding it to a growing wave of states and territories that have done so since 2012.

What does demand look like for cannabis in Maryland? A study shows that Maryland residents consume more marijuana than any other state.

What is already in place? Maryland has a medical marijuana program, which remains open for residents with medical marijuana cards.

By Katie Shepherd covers Maryland state politics and government for The Washington Post’s Metro Desk. She previously covered Montgomery County, Md., and wrote about Health & Science for the Post’s National Desk. Before joining The Post, she was a staff writer at Willamette Week in Portland, Ore. Twitter
By Katie Mettler is a reporter covering policing, courts and justice.  Twitter
By Erin Cox Erin Cox is a politics reporter covering Maryland. She joined The Washington Post in 2018 and has written about Maryland since 2007. Twitter