Cincinnati City Council Set to Vote on Dueling Marijuana Decriminalization Ordinances

Council will likely decide tomorrow whether to decriminalize possession of 1 ounce or 3.5 ounces of marijuana and whether that decriminalization will have age restrictions.

Cincinnati City Council Set to Vote on Dueling Marijuana Decriminalization Ordinances
Roberto Valdivia

City officials could soon do away with penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana in Cincinnati. But exactly how much — and how old you'll need to be to escape consequences — are still up in the air. 

Currently, possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana is punishable by a $150 fine. And there can be longer-term consequences that come with enforcement of the current state law, including the effect the minor misdemeanor can have on job searches, student loan applications and other important efforts.

Cincinnati City Council will vote tomorrow on at least three different ordinances decriminalizing possession of some amount of marijuana. 

One ordinance by Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman and Jeff Pastor would do away with the penalties for having up to 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces. That decriminalization wouldn't cover smoking in public. That's a compromise from an earlier ordinance introduced by the two, which would have sought decriminalization for up to 200 grams, a level that can net a person a $250 fine and 30 days in jail. 

Another series of ordinances introduced by council member David Mann would decriminalize possession of under one ounce, or about 28 grams, of marijuana. Mann points out that the 10 states that have made recreational marijuana use legal have set the one-ounce amount as the limit for individual possession. 

More than that, critics say, is more than you need for personal use and is likely the domain of dealers.

Mann has presented two ordinances — one that decriminalizes possession for those over 18 and another for those over the age of 21. 

Both ordinances would keep penalties for smoking marijuana in public. 

Smitherman and Pastor say they discourage youth usage of marijuana, but feel putting an age limit on the ordinance could lead to unintended consequences and unnecessary legal entanglements for young people.  

Smitherman is running for mayor and has made the marijuana decriminalization effort a focal point of his work on council over the past two months. He says that if council doesn't pass the ordinance he has put forward, he will mount a petition drive to get it on the ballot — likely in 2020. 

Pastor and Smitherman have pointed to statistics showing that 86 percent of the more than 16,000 citations issued by the city for marijuana possession between 2004 and 2019 went to black residents, most of them black men. The vast majority of the citations issued took place under a harsher city anti-marijuana ordinance that was repealed in 2010. 

But state laws against marijuana still exist, and almost 84 percent of those cited under those laws in Cincinnati over the past 15 years have been black.

"What I don't want to continue to do is create this permanent underclass of citizens who are being criminalized with these misdemeanors," Smitherman said Monday in council's Law and Public Safety Committee, "while Wall Street and the suits are making billions of dollars off marijuana." 

Norwood City Council passed a similar ordinance last year, but police there have continued to cite those caught with marijuana under the Ohio Revised Code. Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac has said he'd rather keep Cincinnati Police enforcement as it is, but says his officers will follow the city's instructions, not state law, when it comes to marijuana enforcement. 

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