News: Blowing Smoke

Jail for pot use is unwarranted, say opponents of council propsal

Feb 22, 2006 at 2:06 pm
slim Jim Puvee

Tougher penalties for marijuana possession won't help reduce crime in Cincinnati and might prompt some people to commit more serious criminal offenses, according to Todd Roy.

Roy, 24, a student at Cincinnati State and Technical Community College, spoke Feb. 14 to city council's Law and Public Safety Committee, opposing a proposal by Councilman Cecil Thomas. When Roy was 19 he was cited for having a small amount of marijuana. The conviction, a minor misdemeanor, made him ineligible for college financial aid. The hardship meant it took five years before he was able to re-enroll.

"If you see our drug use as a problem, then we need to be encouraging the people caught to get an education and not doing something that's going to cause them to reduce their opportunities," Roy said.

A person caught in Ohio with less than 100 grams of marijuana is charged with a minor misdemeanor, which entails a $100 ticket. Thomas is proposing an ordinance that would make possession of less than 200 grams a first-degree misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The out-of-towners
The committee chair and a retired Cincinnati Police officer, Thomas alleges that Kentucky and Indiana residents routinely travel to the Queen City to buy marijuana because Ohio's laws are more lenient.

People caught in Kentucky with any amount of marijuana face up to 12 months in jail and a $500 fine.

In Indiana, people with less than 30 grams face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine; possessing more than 30 grams there carries a potential two-year sentence and $10,000 fine.

Hamilton County's jail is already overcrowded, resulting in prostitutes and nonviolent offenders frequently being released after being given a court date. Thomas said he's aware that most people convicted under his proposal wouldn't spend any time in a cell. Instead, the conviction would allow a judge to place offenders under the court's jurisdiction and restrict them from entering certain neighborhoods as a condition of probation.

"We've created an environment that makes it easy for our city to be the market, so to speak," he said. "$100 is no deterrent at all."

More importantly, switching the violation to a first-degree misdemeanor would give police greater latitude to conduct pat-down searches of suspects to see if they are holding weapons or other drugs, according to Thomas.

"In my career as an officer, whenever we had drugs, we had guns," he said. "It's like it went hand in hand."

Many opponents, however, noted that police already have authority to conduct searches based on reasonable suspicion. Further, they cited statistics showing that most offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana in Kentucky and Indiana receive small fines and rarely face the maximum sentence.

Susan Frances of Over-the-Rhine, whose house has been robbed several times, said the emphasis on marijuana is misguided.

"I see drug dealers down there all the time," she said. "My house has been robbed all the time, and it's not the marijuana users. Marijuana is probably sedating your city enough for no more riots to be happening. Marijuana is a peaceful drug."

The primary factor fueling violence on Cincinnati's streets, particularly in Over-the-Rhine, is the prevalence of handguns and crack cocaine, Frances said. Numerous convenience stores sell items needed to produce and smoke crack, such as steel wool cleaning pads and small glass tubes containing an artificial flower that can be discarded and cleaned out for use as a pipe. Police should concentrate their efforts there, Frances said.

"You allow an environment to give what it takes down there to continue using harder drugs than just marijuana," she told the committee.

'Backing up in time'
Some city council members also oppose Thomas' proposal. Councilman Jeff Berding prefers a more comprehensive review of the city's drug policies before changes are made.

"I don't think the drug dealing is limited to marijuana," he said. "It's crack and heroin and a whole bunch of other illicit substances. It seems to me that it's more than our marijuana laws being out of bounds that's causing (the spike in shootings and homicides)."

Councilman David Crowley also spoke against the proposal.

"We have a lot more serious issues to be concerned about," he said. "It seems to me it would dilute our already strained efforts."

Last summer then-Councilman David Pepper, a mayoral candidate, proposed a similar change, sparking a backlash from residents. City council rejected the measure, and many political observers say the effort cost Pepper the support of enough progressive Democrats to swing the mayoral election to his opponent, Mark Mallory.

"There was absolutely no conspicuous support from this community whatsoever," Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell said during the committee meeting. "We made the right decision in the first place. This is backing up in time."

Police efforts should focus on cracking down on the source of handguns and illegal drugs, not small-time street dealers, Tarbell said.

"It's very distracting and takes our attention away from what's really needed," he said.

Council will get a report Tuesday from city administrators, analyzing the proposed change before deciding what — if any — action is taken.

Ohio has been at the forefront of decriminalizing marijuana and shouldn't follow the lead of its neighboring states, said Northside resident Bruce Demske.

"I've never heard anyone say, 'Gee, I want to be as progressive as Kentucky' before," he said. ©