Pot Law a Bust, Critics Say

Repeal would save city of Cincinnati $350,000 annually

Dec 7, 2010 at 2:06 pm

As Cincinnati City Council frets about how to close a $62 million budget deficit, some local activists are asking officials to consider repealing an ordinance they say isn't enforced evenly and wastes taxpayers’ money.

Critics allege that city’s Anti-Marijuana Ordinance is being used to target specific races and is adding to the city’s crippling budget deficit.

“When the ordinance was first passed, they said it was just to give police broader leeway to pull people over and search for guns,” says activist Justin Jeffre. “However, it has had no effect on the guns in the city and has actually resulted in less guns being found.”

The ordinance, which criminalizes possessing a small amount of marijuana, was first introduced by then-City Councilman David Pepper in 2005, while he was preparing for a mayoral campaign.

Initially there was little support and it was dropped.

About a year later, Democrat Cecil Thomas (pictured) — a retired Cincinnati police officer — was elected to council and revived the proposal. He was joined in lobbying for passage by Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, a Republican. At the time, those who spoke out against the increased penalty included then-Councilman Jim Tarbell, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, some judges and Libertarians.

After much debate, council approved the ordinance by a 6-2 vote in March 2006 for a one-year trial basis. Besides Thomas and Ghiz, supporters were Chris Bortz, Laketa Cole, John Cranley and Chris Monzel.

In 2006, Thomas said the measure was meant to discourage people from Northern Kentucky, Indiana and surrounding communities in Ohio from coming to Cincinnati to buy pot, along with allowing police to more readily conduct full body searches of people they suspect of carrying guns. After the year-long tryout, statistics showed the reduction in out-of-state residents buying pot here was minimal — less than 1 percent — but costs to prosecute the cases more than doubled.

Portune asked City Council not to extend the law indefinitely, stating some judges had approached him privately and complained that the tougher penalties were clogging up court time that could be spent dealing with more serious crimes.

“As we have examined the issue of jail overcrowding, I have been approached by numerous members of the county judiciary who have complained that the legislation was unnecessary; inappropriate and a major contributor to current overcrowding,” Portune wrote in a letter to council.

Nevertheless, council extended the law indefinitely in 2007, this time in a 7-2 vote. (Councilman Jeff Berding, who was absent the first time, joined in the yays.) Despite its approval, some council members who supported it said they would reconsider if its use increased jail-overcrowding or targeted certain groups.

Today many people are saying exactly those things are happening, but that council members who support the ordinance aren't listening. An analysis of data for people arrested under the ordinance between March 2006 and May 2010 found that 85 percent of them were African American, despite statistics indicating that marijuana use among blacks and whites is roughly equal.

Moreover, the data showed the majority of those arrested under the ordinance weren't charged with more serious offenses, undercutting Thomas' “getting guns off the streets” rationale.

“They are crowding the jail and targeting certain people, but no one cares,” Jeffre says. “There is a huge difference between the number of white and black people arrested even though studies show they both smoke marijuana at the same rate.”

Thomas didn't return several calls and e-mails from CityBeat. He's also been unresponsive to other media about the topic.

Other members of the Hamilton County judicial system, though, are listening and do have opinions on the issue. Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Nadine Allen says she can’t say whether she supports the ordinance. But she can see how the ordinance can destroy a person’s life.

Under Ohio law, having 100 grams or less of marijuana is a minor misdemeanor that results in a citation and $100 fine. Violators don't get arrested and it doesn't go on the person's criminal record. But with Cincinnati’s ordinance, if a person is caught possessing any amount of marijuana — no matter how small — he or she is arrested, charged with a fourth-degree misdemeanor and could face up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine. More importantly, the charge goes on their criminal record, which must be reported when applying for a job or student loan.

If someone is arrested a second time, the person is charged with a first-degree misdemeanor and could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Worse, the initial arrest can no longer be expunged.

“You become a convicted drug offender,” Allen says. “That will be on your criminal record for the rest of your life and can cause real problems for you later on in life.”

Some of the problems having a drug conviction can cause include losing federal financial aid for college, being evicted from subsidized housing and not being able to get a job.

“People shouldn’t lose their lives over a joint,” Jeffre says. “The punishment for a crime shouldn’t do more damage than the crime actually did.”

Councilman Wendell Young — who also is a retired police officer and wasn't on council when the ordinance was approved — opposes it precisely because of the misfortune it is causing people and how expensive it is to enforce.

“In my opinion, the marijuana ordinance has brought unfair consequences to the public and has caused them more harm than good,” Young says. “At the time it was passed, it may have made sense, but now it doesn’t make sense and the city cannot afford to enforce it.”

Some of the added expenses due to the ordinance include paying police officers overtime to appear in court, jail bills, lab fees from the Coroner’s Office and prosecutor's fees.

“If we repealed the ordinance, we would save the city at least $300,000 annually and that is just the lab and jail space costs,” Young says. “I think we could save the city more, but the police do not track their overtime per arrest, so we cannot see how much we are paying them in overtime to enforce this law.”

CityBeat made a public records request to the Cincinnati Police Department for how much in overtime costs were incurred related to marijuana arrests but it was denied. Police Sgt. Danita Kilgore, the department's spokeswoman, said no such report currently exists and they're not easily quantified.