Cincinnati City Council Pauses on Marijuana Decriminalization

Despite majority support, some council members paused a vote on the ordinance, citing a number of questions

click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati City Hall

Despite support from most of members, Cincinnati City Council today delayed a vote on an ordinance that would decriminalize possession of up to 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of marijuana. 

That ordinance drew questions from Republican council member Amy Murray and Democrat David Mann, however, who said they weren't comfortable voting on it without further information.

Both voted against suspending council rules requiring three readings of an ordinance. Seven members of council need to agree to suspend that rule, and with council member Greg Landsman out of town, the legislation will be held until next week unless sponsors Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman and council member Jeff Pastor hold a special session of council sooner than that.

Both Smitherman and Pastor have cast the issue as one of racial and economic equity. Under current Ohio law, possession of 100 grams of marijuana or less is a minor misdemeanor punishable by a $150 fine. Smitherman says even that minor penalty can present barriers for employment, however.

As corporations make millions of dollars on marijuana, Smitherman said, "the little person is being negatively impacted by small amounts of marijuana."

But critics on council said that the 100 gram level isn't a small amount. Murray said it represented "more than 300 joints." 

Murray pointed to hesitancy from Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac and said she still had a number of questions.

She wants to know whether the ordinance will allow Cincinnati residents to smoke in public without consequence, if smoking marijuana will be age restricted and other details. Mann, meanwhile, said he believes marijuana is a gateway drug, that there is no technology to test if someone is impaired from smoking marijuana while driving and that the ordinance would create confusion and would cause various municipalities' local laws to clash — perhaps enticing dealers to come to Cincinnati to escape harsher laws in neighboring communities. 

“If you want that, that’s fine, that’s not the kind of community I want,” Mann said about people, including those under the age of 18, smoking marijuana in public.

Council member Chris Seelbach, who supports decriminalization, took issue with Mann's points, however, saying that alcohol could also be considered a gateway drug, and it isn't prohibited. 

Council members P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young also signaled support for the measure, though Young said he was somewhat hesitant and would prefer to hold the legislation a week to get some questions answered.

Smitherman said he would explore setting up a special session of council to move the legislation forward, or, failing that, starting a petition drive to get an amendment to the city's charter on the ballot.

Council will likely take up the ordinance again next week, along with another that would decriminalize possession of up to 200 grams (7 ounces) of marijuana. Under Ohio law, penalty for the latter amount is a $250 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

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