Cincinnati could vote Wednesday to decriminalize marijuana

Council to discuss legalizing marijuana

CINCINNATI, Ohio (Cincinnati Enquirer) - Cincinnati City Council started the process Monday to decriminalize marijuana – though Police Chief Eliot Isaac said he had some concerns about the idea, our media partners with the Cincinnati Enquirer said.

During a law committee meeting Monday, Isaac said he would enforce whatever council passed, but was concerned about decriminalizing up to roughly half a pound, as the ordinance calls for.

"I am very sensitive... to how laws sometimes disproportionately affect different communities," Isaac said in committee. "But a half pound concerns me. I'm not comfortable with any of it, but ... I will enforce it."

Also, among the chief's questions: how would officers handle the conflict between Ohio law and city law? Still, he added, he was confident city lawyers would help the department navigate the process.

Council is expected to vote at 2 p.m. on Wednesdayan ordinance which decriminalizes marijuana. It would give Cincinnati police the option to write citations with no fines or criminal charges for people caught with less than a half pound of weed.

Council will look at two versions of the law, one that decriminalizes marijuana up to 200 grams, another that decriminalizes up to 100 grams -- the latter version preferred by the chief.

"This is definitely a conversation taking place nationally," Isaac said. "This is a pivotal time. Council has to make a decision about how the city will respond to legalizing marijuana."

He added as a 30-year law enforcement officer, he's "concerned."

“I think it’s just not as simple as that,” Isaac said. “There is violence associated with larger amounts.”

Last December, some city leaders said they were considering decriminalizing marijuana, following in the footsteps of Norwood and a handful of other Ohio cities that decriminalized marijuana.

They kicked around the idea, led by Chris Smitherman and Jeff Pastor, to the city's law department for review. It came back to law committee Monday, ready for discussion.

Any decriminalization would have to occur through a charter amendment, which would need voter approval. Decriminalization could get to the ballot with six votes of council or a citizen-initiated ballot initiative, which Smitherman said he would seek if the votes aren't there.

Under the ordinance that came to committee, people caught with small amounts of marijuana wouldn’t be prosecuted. No $250 fine; no 30 days in jail, which is what Ohio law allows.

A city lawyer explained the law doesn't replace Ohio law, but would instead be an alternative to Ohio law.

In Ohio, possession of less than 100 grams – roughly 1/4 pound – of cannabis is a minor misdemeanor punishable by a $150 fine.

Possession of 100 to 200 grams is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum sentence of 30 days imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250.

For context, a joint contains roughly .32 grams of marijuana. So, 200 grams of mairjuana would be about 625 joints.

Anyone caught possessing 200 grams or more is subject to felony charges.

Smitherman, an Independent who has announced he is running for mayor in 2021, pointed out publicly traded companies are benefiting from the marijuana industry, but citizens on the street are being locked up, which is unfair. He said he's trying to help the person with a joint, and doesn't want them caught up in the criminal justice system.

Pastor, a Republican, said he sees marijuana laws as "big government" overreach.

"Two African American men doing this sends a huge signal," Pastor said.

Last November, five out of six Ohio cities faced with a vote to decriminalize marijuana, approved the idea, including Dayton and Norwood, according to media reports.

Norwood voters decriminalized marijuana by removing fines and jail penalties for marijuana possession of less than half a pound of the drug.

Norwood joined more than 50 localities in a dozen states that have ended prosecution or enacted municipal laws or resolutions decriminalizing minor violations for cannabis possession, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

People caught with small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption in the Hamilton County city won’t be prosecuted, racking up a criminal record. A criminal record is a barrier to getting housing or jobs.

Pastor said one of his cousins was barred from taking the postal exam for what amounted to "possessing a joint."

Decriminalizing marijuana would be a marked change from past councils that were tough on marijuana.

After the 2001 riots, when violent crime soared, council cracked down on marijuana, passing a law in 2006 that made possessing even a small amount a misdemeanor crime.

But in 2010, council realized the unintentional consequences of the law, which was thousands of people now had criminal records for minor possession of drugs. So it repealed the law.

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