Dayvon Love, director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. Credit: (Courtesy Photo)

This post was originally published on Afro

By Dayvon Love

During the 2023 Maryland General Assembly, LBS focused mostly on dealing with the criminal justice elements of cannabis legalization. We have been working to prohibit the use of odor as the basis for searches from law enforcement and to remove criminal penalties for possession of cannabis about the 2.5 oz civil amount. This should be low-hanging fruit in the context of the fact that Maryland is going to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. This is particularly important given the fact that law enforcement has used cannabis prohibition policies as a central component of their public safety strategy. Law enforcement has testified against both of these policies and has testified that the smell of cannabis and its criminalization have been key tools for law enforcement. This begs the question, what is the connection between cannabis (and drug trafficking more broadly) and violence in Maryland?

As a person who lives in west Baltimore and knows people that are impacted by violence, my anecdotal observation is that much of the violence is not the result of drug trafficking. Much of it tends to be very dynamic interpersonal disputes that spiral out of control. Again, this is my own anecdotal experience as someone who is connected to working-class Black people who live in communities impacted by violence and my close association with people who work to address violence in my community. Over the past few years, pushing back against mandatory minimums, sentence enhancements, and advocating for cannabis legalization, it seemed to me that the opposition (law enforcement) would characterize drug trafficking as a central driver of violence in the community. I didn’t realize how central this notion was until working on cannabis legalization. 

I began looking for available data on the circumstances surrounding homicides in Baltimore/Maryland and to compare it to the discourse being had by law enforcement about public safety. There are two particular data points that I found that provide some level of clarity on this issue. The first is from a presentation from the Baltimore City’s Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on January 17, 2023 where they reveal that in the western district only 14.5% of homicides in 2018 & 2019 were related to drug trafficking. The Maryland Commission on Sentencing found that 25% of gun-related convictions in 2019 were related to drug offenses (it’s probably safe to assume that not all drug offenses are related to trafficking, which means 25% is generous). It seems that the lasting impact of the war on drugs is that law enforcement has structured its culture, operations, and infrastructure around the notion that drug trafficking is a central driver of violence. This is not to say that there is no context where drug trafficking has been a significant driver of violence, but based on my own anecdotal experience and the data mentioned above, developing a public safety strategy based on that notion does not square with the actual reality on the ground. This probably provides some explanation as to the failure of law enforcement to be effective deterrents to violence. I know I am not the first person to make the observation of this mismatch regarding how law enforcement functions from the perspective of drug trafficking being central to addressing violence in spite of what the actual reality is on the ground. The fact that this society is structured on the system of white supremacy becomes particularly relevant because of the racialized notions of criminality and pathology that are projected onto the working class and poor Black people. The caricature of the dangerous Black drug dealer that flows from the Black brute stereotype makes those who are most harmed by the criminal justice system at best invisible and at worse acceptable collateral damage.  

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