Gov. Wes Moore pardoned more than 175,000 cannabis-related convictions Monday, nullifying guilty verdicts decided when carrying small amounts of the drug or paraphernalia was illegal.

The executive order granted clemency to thousands of people convicted in Maryland and made history as the largest blanket pardon in the country. Lawmakers, agency officials and at least one person pardoned met Moore’s sweeping action with multiple standing ovations in the packed State House reception room.

Moore said that the decision to issue the mass pardon was a natural outgrowth of voters’ decision to legalize cannabis for adult use in 2022. That decision led to economic opportunity in the cannabis industry, yet so many Marylanders — particularly in Black and brown communities — were still enduring consequences from when the substance was illegal.

“We cannot celebrate the benefits of legalization if we do not address the consequences of criminalization,” Moore said.

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“This has had significant racial equity undertones in it as well, in the way we have used the criminal justice system and used cannabis policy as a cudgel against communities of color,” Moore said.

Moore framed his decision as an attempt to right past wrongs in the criminal justice system.

“There’s a real measure of unfairness when you have individuals who continue to face the consequences of something that’s no longer illegal,” he said.

Moore’s actions follow the lead of governors and local officials across the country who have begun pardoning certain cannabis convictions. President Joe Biden in 2022 announced he’d pardon thousands convicted of federal cannabis possession charges and asked local officials to follow his lead.

Attorney General Anthony Brown said the pardons were long overdue and called the pardons a “triumphant victory” for African Americans and other people of color “who were disproportionately arrested, convicted and sentenced for actions yesterday that are lawful today.”

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“As a nation, we’ve taken far too long to correct the injustices of a system that is supposed to be just for all,” he said.

Brown painted the disproportionate arrests of people of color as the “residuals of slavery” and called the country’s failed war on drugs a “war on communities of color.” He likened the convictions for low-level cannabis crimes to modern-day “shackles.”

“I can almost hear the clang of those shackles falling to the floor with your pardons,” Brown said to Moore.

Shiloh Jordan is applauded during a State House event in which Gov. Wes Moore pardoned more than 175,000 convictions for possession of cannabis and cannabis paraphernalia on Monday, June 17, 2024. Jordan is among those who will have a minor charge pardoned. (Pamela Wood/The Baltimore Banner)

Moore thanked a broad coalition of state and national partners who worked together to turn the moment into a reality, but only the governor has the constitutional power to execute the pardons. Moore signed the order with a pen from the Last Prison Project that’s been used by governors around the country putting their names on similar orders and actions.

The power of the pardon

Among those pardoned is Shiloh Jordan, 32, who was invited to stand alongside Moore as the pardon was signed.

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Jordan is an outreach coordinator for the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore. But the governor said Jordan’s path to completing college and launching his career was disrupted by a cannabis possession charge.

Jordan said after the ceremony that he was “extremely happy.”

He said he knows others who have been convicted on “petty cannabis charges” that affected their livelihoods.

”I’m thankful that they can use my story as testimony and we can try to offer change to people in Maryland,” he said.

Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said cannabis arrests can cause compounding problems for individuals. For example, she said a person who gets sent to jail for even a short sentence might lose their job and then their housing. Or a cannabis arrest might trigger a probation violation and even more jail time.

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”It’s a vicious cycle, and this is a first step in slowing that down,” Dartigue said.

Even with work to be done, such as ensuring those with pardons get their records expunged, Dartigue praised the governor’s decision.

”It’s always important when government takes an active role in recognizing a wrong and rectifying it,” she said.

Nearly one-quarter of the convictions are from Baltimore, making it the part of the state most affected by the action, according to the governor’s office. Another 13% of convictions to be pardoned are in Baltimore County, along with a similar percentage in Prince George’s County.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said in a statement the pardons will be “life changing” and a step toward healing. The legacy of the war on drugs is “still visceral and tangible” in the city, the Democrat said. ”We still see and feel the wounds every day in the lives, families, and communities that were disrupted and destroyed.”

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The state is working with court officials to further break down demographic data. Officials believe that Black Marylanders are likely to be significantly affected because the system historically has arrested more people of color for drug charges.

Lingering convictions can keep people from securing housing; getting a job, a professional license and public benefits; and furthering their education.

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, applauded Gov. Wes Moore's decision to pardon more than 175,000 cannabis-related convictions. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Several lawmakers attended the ceremony and applauded the governor’s action. But they acknowledged that more work lies ahead.

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland noted the pardons build on other efforts to ease the lives of people with minor convictions on their records.

“To me, it’s about a fresh start,” Wilkins said. ”It’s about our state standing up and saying, ‘You are welcome here. We’re ending the war on drugs.” The move is critical as the state moves forward with its nascent adult-use cannabis industry and legalization, she said.

”This is decisive, historic action on the governor’s part that really moves the ball forward tremendously,” said Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, a Montgomery County Democrat who is vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Waldstreicher noted that the pardons won’t all automatically translate into expungements — when a criminal record is wiped completely — which is something lawmakers could address in the future.

”Now it’s our charge in the legislature to make sure this gets implemented smoothly, and to take steps to move it further so we can continue to fight for racial justice in Maryland,” he said.

Del. David Moon, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he’s already connecting with the governor’s office to consider the technical feasibility of automatically expunging paraphernalia charges. Moon worked on the 2022 legislation that mandated automatic expungement of stand-alone cannabis possession convictions.

Righting historical wrongs

The convictions being pardoned all stem from arrests made before Jan. 1, 2023, when cannabis possession was decriminalized. It’s not clear how far back the affected convictions go, but include more than 150,000 misdemeanors for simple possession and more than 18,000 for possession of drug paraphernalia. Administration officials estimate at least 100,000 people have been pardoned.

The governor’s office said all pardons will be reflected in Maryland’s online court records within two weeks. Affected individuals will not be required to take any action to receive the pardon.

Anyone with drug offenses who is not part of the pardon can apply for one through the state’s existing process.

A state pardon does not clear a public court record. Only an expungement by the judicial branch can wipe someone’s conviction history, but state expungement laws that were expanded in 2022 tasked the judicial branch with automatically wiping hundreds of thousands of cannabis convictions when possession was the only crime.

The law also made pathways to expungement when the charge was one of many and allowed people incarcerated on simple possession charges to petition for resentencing and release.

Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown speaks during a State House event in which Gov. Wes Moore, at right, pardoned more than 175,000 cannabis-related convictions on Monday, June 17, 2024. (Pamela Wood/The Baltimore Banner)

Last year, state lawmakers created a business license framework intended to prioritize what they dubbed “social equity” applicants and designed a tax revenue distribution plan to benefit communities harmed by cannabis prohibition. Maryland’s adult-use cannabis market opened on July 1, 2023.

The Maryland Cannabis Administration picked the first round of lottery winners eligible for conditional business licenses in March. State officials are vetting the applicants’ business arrangements to ensure the social equity entrepreneurs maintain majority ownership of the business.

Maryland law limits the number of licenses issued and restricts who can apply for one. The state made history by prioritizing its first license round for social equity applicants.

These applicants must have lived or have gone to school in areas with an above-average number of cannabis convictions or have attended a state college or university where a significant percentage of students received Pell Grants. The state used court data to produce a list of ZIP codes, and applicants had to prove they qualified.

Nearly two-thirds of those ZIP codes were in three jurisdictions: Baltimore, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County.

Tax revenues collected from adult-use sales will first go to pay for the state’s regulation of the market and then be distributed proportionally to communities harmed by cannabis prohibition. A state survey showed overwhelming public support for distributing tax revenue to neighborhoods harmed by the war on drugs.