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Columbus Wants To Reduce Penalties For Marijuana Possession

On Friday, March 22, 2019, a participant smokes a marijuana cigarette during at meet and greet at "Tommy Chong's Live, Love, and Smoke Tour" in Los Angeles.
Richard Vogel
Associated Press
On Friday, March 22, 2019, a participant smokes a marijuana cigarette during at meet and greet at "Tommy Chong's Live, Love, and Smoke Tour" in Los Angeles.

Medical marijuana is still a new sight around Ohio, but the conversation is already shifting. Columbus City Council president Shannon Hardin wants to reduce penalties for marijuana possession, and he's taking the first step Thursday night at a public hearing in Council chambers.

The idea of marijuana decriminalization is a popular one among Columbus residents.

“I believe that it will be helpful to those who currently consume for whatever reason that it is that they’re deciding to consume it,” says Ron Mickley.

“Well, prohibition has never worked, it’s not working this time,” Kyle Benzle adds. “It just doesn’t work.”

“I don’t know anybody that goes out and robs somebody over a bag of cannabis, but there’s how many people right now in prison because they were strung out on Percocets from a doctor,” Chastity Liggett says.

Of course, there are still plenty of people who still see marijuana as dangerous, including addiction specialists and many doctors. Hardin isn’t proposing full-on recreational marijuana, though.

Instead, he has several proposals in mind for Columbus, including lowering penalties for marijuana-related crimes and making sure those criminal records are sealed or expunged so people remain employable.

Hardin also wants to push the state drug sentencing reform backed by City Attorney Zach Klein and Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien. That idea was floated as an alternative for the failed 2018 ballot issue.

Several states and cities around the country have already decriminalized marijuana possession, most recently New Mexico. In places like Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia, pot possession is treated almost like a parking ticket. And in Euclid, Ohio, city officials eliminatedjail time for low-level marijuana posession after the podcast Serial shed light on its penalties, which are tougher than the state's.

Hardin says Columbus wouldn't completely decriminalize marijuana because the city is constrained by state law.

“So right now, under the city code, we cite for penalties and low-level possession—misdemeanors,” Hardin says. “So the realm in which our conversation can even happen is in that penalty phase.”

That also means the city can’t move to reduce a felony to a misdemeanor.

The most likely legal scenario, Hardin says, is passing an ordinance to lower penalties. While he’s unsure what exactly that ordinance will look like, Hardintold WOSU last year that he wanted the starting point for the conversation to be making the possession of up to 200 grams of marijuana a minor misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $25.

Current state law classifies the possession of between 100 and 200 grams of marijuana as a fourth-degree misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $250 and up to 30 days in jail. Possession of less than 100 grams, or about 3.5 ounces, is a minor misdemeanor with a penalty of $150.

Low-level possession charges in neighboring states like Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania all carry the potential for jail time. Still, Hardin says lowering Ohio’s fine could make a difference.

“So right now, a young person could be charged up to $150 for a penalty,” he says. “If they don’t have that $150, if they’re coming from a community that is struggling, our ability to lower that penalty is a difference—it’s a big difference.”

Hardin also points to racial disparities in enforcement of marijuana laws. Council reviewed county court cases between 2016 and late 2018, and found more than 60 percent of those arrested for possession were black males. That was nearly triple the number of white males arrested.

Hardin and Council member Shayla Favor will hold a public hearing on marijuana reform on Thursday, April 25, at 5:30 p.m. at Columbus City Hall.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.