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Maryland's governor pardons tens of thousands of cannabis-related misdemeanors


As cannabis laws have eased in the U.S., states have turned to clearing people of past convictions. And today, in Maryland, Governor Wes Moore, a Democrat, authorized pardons for an estimated 100,000 people with misdemeanor cannabis convictions. He says the pardon is historic both because of those sweeping numbers and as a step for addressing racial equity. I'm joined now by reporter Rachel Baye from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Hey, Rachel.


KELLY: Again, these are misdemeanor convictions. Nobody's being released from jail here. What is the actual practical effect of this for people getting pardons?

BAYE: So here's how officials say this will work. The governor is pardoning 175,000 convictions, or about 100,000 people, because some people have multiple convictions.


BAYE: In about two weeks, the convictions will be marked pardoned in court records. And in about 10 months, criminal background checks will also reflect the change. However, these convictions are not being expunged. They will still appear in court records and criminal background checks. And people may still need to disclose their criminal records when they apply for jobs, housing or higher education opportunities.

It's also worth noting that roughly 40,000 convictions being pardoned now are actually already hidden from court records and in criminal background checks under a law the state passed two years ago. Those people won't be affected by this.

KELLY: OK, so what's driving this? Why is Governor Moore doing it? Why is he doing it now?

BAYE: Moore has made closing racial wealth gaps and improving equality a large part of his agenda. He is Maryland's first Black governor. And when he announced the pardons, he said they are a step toward undoing policies applied in racist ways in the past.


WES MOORE: We're talking about tools that have led to the mass incarceration of Black men and boys. We're talking about tools that have led to restricted access to jobs and housing in minority communities. We're talking about tools that have led to an 8 to 1 racial wealth gap in our state.

BAYE: As for why now, it's likely not a coincidence that Moore did this two days before Juneteenth, a day marking the end of slavery in America.

KELLY: I want to inject here that Maryland is a heavily democratic state led, as we mentioned, by a Democratic governor. Does that help explain why this has not been particularly controversial?

BAYE: To a large extent, this feels like a settled issue here. In 2022, Maryland voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational cannabis use. The greater opposition today seems to come from people who say the governor's action doesn't go far enough.

I spoke with Alexandra Bailey at The Sentencing Project, which advocates for criminal justice reform. To sum up what she said, she describes the pardons as largely symbolic. She said rather than - they don't really have a large tangible impact. It's likely that many of the people affected by the latest pardons have other convictions that are not being pardoned, and many will have served time in prison or may be incarcerated now.

And she noted that those other convictions, especially if they are felony convictions, create barriers to housing, jobs, education and government aid. When I asked the governor's office, they could not tell me how many people of those - how many of the affected people will remain incarcerated on other charges after today's actions.

KELLY: And just very briefly, I mentioned this is a national trend. What other states have tried something similar?

BAYE: So President Biden set the tone, really, in 2022, when he pardoned about 6,000 federal cannabis convictions. Then, as you mentioned, a number of states followed. In Massachusetts, Governor Maura Healey recently announced pardons for all misdemeanor cannabis possession convictions. Other states, such as Minnesota, have gone further by not just pardoning but also expunging misdemeanor Cannabis possession convictions. But today in Maryland, Governor Moore is claiming his action is the, quote, "most sweeping state-level pardon of any state in American history."

KELLY: Thank you, Rachel.

BAYE: My pleasure.

KELLY: Rachel Baye in Baltimore with WYPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rachel Baye
Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR covering Maryland state politics and related topics.