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Major Battleground In The War On Drugs Takes A Softer Stance On Pot Convictions

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Prosecutors in Baltimore, a city with one of the highest rates of marijuana arrests in the United States, are softening their approach to those charged with possessing the drug, saying such convictions clog the court system and drain resources.

Last year, 4,500 people were allowed to perform community service rather than going to court for pot possession, an increase from about 1,400 the previous year, according to new city data first published in the Baltimore Sun.

As any fan of the HBO series "The Wire" knows, Baltimore has long been a battleground in the war on drugs. Its violent drug trade mainly revolves around heroin, not pot. But pot convictions can make it hard for people to find jobs, get into school and stay in public housing.

“It’s hard enough to get jobs,” said Maryland State’s Attorney for Baltimore Gregg Bernstein. “I don’t want some 19-year-old young person, who gets picked up because he’s standing on a corner in a bad neighborhood smoking a blunt, to get some sort of conviction that prevents him from going to college, getting a job. We have to figure out a way to change that.”

Baltimore isn’t the only city in recent years to have adopted a “court diversion” program. As public opinion on pot prohibition has shifted, city and county governments have embraced similar strategies -- letting offenders avoid convictions and jail time by performing community service or, in some cases, paying fines.

Supporters say these programs relieve crowded local court systems and jails, allowing governments to direct money to other priorities, while giving prosecutors time to focus on more serious cases. “If a defendant takes diversion rather than defending a criminal case, the entire court system is freed, to a degree, from the case –- judges, court administrators, prosecutors, defense lawyers,” said Bernstein. The city believes this has saved money, he said, though he added that it’s difficult to “unbundle just how much.”

In 2010, the most recent year cited in an American Civil Liberties Union report on Maryland's marijuana arrests, the state spent about $106 million enforcing marijuana possession laws.

Bernstein said the jump in participation stems from his decision three years ago to open up the program not only to first-time offenders, but also to those arrested for the second time. “It’s a one-day program. You get a lecture by a certified drug counselor, and then you do five hours of community service, and if you do all those things, then we dismiss the case,” he explained.

By his own admission, the community service component doesn’t amount to much more than busy work -- the participants sweep streets outside the city’s three district courthouses. What’s important, he said, is that the program spares people from being permanently labeled a convicted criminal.

Some critics of pot prohibition feel the program doesn’t go far enough. Neill Franklin, director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit of current and former police officials who advocate for the legalization of drugs, said the city should eliminate pot arrests, not just convictions. “When someone is arrested, that arrest goes into the electronic Baltimore city court system, and once it goes into the system, it’s then accessible to anybody who has $19 and 95 cents,” he said. “That’s what employers look at when they evaluate their applicants. Until you eliminate the arrest, you’re not making the situation better for people who are adversely affected by drug policies.”

Advocates for drug reform have long argued that drug prohibition leads to violence, and in Baltimore, drug-related violence is on the rise. Last year, the number of homicides in Baltimore jumped to 235 from 219, a four-year high. Bernstein said some of this violence stems from the marijuana trade, but he hedged when asked whether he believes that legalizing the drug altogether would make the city safer. “I don’t know,” he said. “I know that’s obviously been a debate that’s been going on for some time.”

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