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City Council Seeks to Address Marijuana Reform

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Over the last decade or so, political and moral ideas about marijuana have undoubtedly changed. More than 30 states have legalized the drug, either for medicinal or recreational purposes, and the burgeoning weed industry is already raking in billions of dollars.

In the mean time, criminal justice and civil rights experts have noted that while certain people and companies are permitted to consume and profit off of marijuana, others face legal consequences that can affect their education, housing, employment and future security.

Columbus City Council is looking to address this disparity. They’ll kick off their initiative at a public hearing this Thursday, April 25 at City Hall.

The initial goal is to determine what the city can do within its power to reduce penalties related to low level marijuana possession; inform those in the public who are unaware of the disparities in marijuana arrests and penalties; and publicly support Substitute Senate Bill 3, which aims to distinguish culpable offenders, like traffickers and dealers, from those considered less culpable, such as addicts and those in possession for personal use.

Lara Baker-Morrish, City Solicitor General for City Attorney Zach Klein’s Office, laid out a few ways in which Council could work toward marijuana reform without the state. The city could look at reducing a fourth degree misdemeanor for possession of marijuana under 200 grams to a minor misdemeanor, though it would still constitute a drug possession conviction, which can “have collateral consequences beyond those which are contemplated at the time of the creation of the offense.”

The Columbus Division of Police could also create new policy directives that dictate how violations of the law are handled.

“Assuming no specific law to the contrary, the Division may develop an array of policies consistent with their underlying mission of promoting public safety and equal enforcement of the law,” Baker-Morrish said in a memo to City Council. “Such policies could include things such as the issuance of warnings, law enforcement-initiated diversion, or any of an array of responses short of the issuance of a criminal complaint.”

Any policy the Division of Police considers would need to be reviewed by the City Attorney’s office to assure compliance with existing law.

“It’s not lost on me or us that this conversation is coming a few days after 4/20,” says Council President Shannon Hardin. “I think that this is the time because, you know, there’s a fun side to this, but then there’s a really serious side when you think about the people being harmed by the current system and the current laws.”

“The serious side is that people are unable to get student loans,” says Councilmember Shayla Favor, who heads the newly expanded Criminal Justice and Judiciary Committee. “The serious side is that they can’t get jobs. The serious side is they’ve got a guilty conviction on their record.”

This is especially the case for black men under the age of 25, who accounted for 40 percent of all defendants in marijuana cases heard by the Franklin County Municipal Court (FCMC) since 2016, despite equitable marijuana usage rates across races. Since the beginning of 2016, FCMC has seen more than 4,600 drug possession cases brought by the Columbus Division of Police, 1,300 for marijuana and paraphernalia. Of those, 910 (68 percent) had defendants listed as black; 381 (29 percent) were listed as white.

This disparity has a lot to do with racial biases at the individual, policy, and institutional levels, says Kyle Strickland, with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. From the over-policing of poor communities and communities of color, to the racial bias within individual actors like police officers, DAs, and judges, Strickland says the system is stacked against people of color.

“Even in situations of decriminalization of usage, in cities and states that have done this, while arrests have gone down, the racial disparities persist,” he says. “African Americans and Latinx persons are still being charged and arrested at higher rates, because of biases at individual and institutional levels.”

Strickland hopes this effort on behalf of council is a step toward addressing sweeping criminal justice reform locally. His goal for Columbus is to establish transparency and accountability within the Columbus Division of Police, have public records available to see who’s getting arrested for marijuana possession, what their age or gender is, where it happened, when it happened, and who the officer was that made the arrest — “Start documenting those types of things so we can recognize patterns,” says Strickland.

Citing what many public officials call the “Columbus Way,” he sees this as an opportunity to bring together private and public partners to address discriminatory practices in public safety, employment, and housing in the same way those partners rallied behind the Columbus Crew.

“We had all sorts of folks from the private sector, from all over the community, public officials, rallying around to save the Columbus Crew,” he says. “I want to see that same energy and spirit when it comes to addressing issues of racism, issues of addressing our broken criminal justice system.”

Council’s public hearing on marijuana reform will take place at City Hall this Thursday, April 25 at 5:30 p.m. Experts from the Moritz College of Law, the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, the Legal Aid Society of Columbus and the Franklin County Office of Justice Policy & Programs will be featured speakers, along with representatives from the City Attorney’s Office and the City Council Legislative Research Office.

For more information, visit columbus.gov.

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