PORTSMOUTH — Following a lengthy conversation and taking in public comments, Portsmouth City Council voted 3-2 in favor of a marijuana decriminalization ordinance to its third reading.
With its passing, Section 513.03(C) (2) Drug Abuse: Controlled Substance possession or use of the Codified Ordinances would be amended, which classifies possession of marijuana between 100 and 200 grams as a misdemeanor of the fourth degree. The penalty, a maximum of 30 days in prison and a $250 fine, would be removed with the ordinance.
Council meetings still being closed to public audiences due to the coronavirus, many went to Facebook to voice their support and concerns with the ordinance.
“This doesn’t change the law. This is symbolic,” wrote one commenter. “As city councils across the state do this, it’s something to strengthen the efforts across the state to decriminalize it statewide.”
“The only chaos is with the opioids, weed hasn’t bothered a soul,” wrote another. “Families aren’t broken because of weed, alcohol is more dangerous. It’s a shame a weed charge can ruin someone’s life, yet the drunk driver gets away and does it again and again and kills someone. Not the case with weed.”
“People (that) choose to use Marijuana ought to be prepared to accept the consequences,” wrote one dissenting poster. “Even if it means they can’t get an apartment or job because of their personal choices.”
Mayor Kevin E. Johnson and 4th Ward Councilman Andrew McManus voted against the measure, but for different reasons. McManus does not see this as a pass to buy and use marijuana, but he voted with the consciousness of what his constituents want and believe.
“I’m tired of being the bad guy, I’m tired of getting flipped-off while getting gas,” said McManus. “I think the vast majority of people don’t want this (the ordinance).”
Johnson, however, saw this as a challenge as to the oath he took as a public official. Seeing it as his duty to uphold the laws of the Ohio and U.S. constitutions, he understood the ordinance as a violation of that trust.
“This is one of the most important pieces of legislation in my time on Council,” said Johnson, a councilman since 2013. “I don’t know we can decriminalize marijuana when it’s still state law.”
City Solicitor John Haas reassured Johnson that action by the city was not a violation in any way, rather acting within their purview and not affecting anything outside of their jurisdiction.
“We would basically be taking it (criminal charges) off the books if it passes,” said Haas.
Voting in favor were 1st Ward Councilman Sean Dunne, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Charlotte Gordon, and 5th Ward Councilman Edwin Martell. 6th Ward Councilman Thomas Lowe was not in attendance.
Dunne continued his earlier arguments, stating enforcement of marijuana laws is racially-slanted, encouraged by the pharmaceutical industry and private prisons, and can lead to a destruction of lives.
“I feel guilty that we haven’t done enough for the opioid epidemic that has attacked this area in a lot of ways,” said Dunne, who believes decriminalization could counteract the lethal effects of the opioid epidemic.
According to figures from an American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio study in 2010, African Americans in the state were 4.1 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, which was above the national average of 3.73. Scioto County had one of the largest disparities in enforcement, where 185 per 100,000 African Americans were arrested compared to 27 per 100,000 white people.
In a county where African Americans only make up 2.7% of its population according to census figures, they were seven times more likely to be arrested than white people.
When Johnson asked why Council was rushing through with this legislation before having an actual public meeting, Dunne responded that citizens have become well-aware of what the ordinance would mean since agreeing to place it on their agenda Aug. 10.
“I encourage you to talk to people that do have records of marijuana or have had issues in arrests with marijuana,” asked Dunne of his fellow council people. “I understand where Kevin is coming from, but for me, it’s not a question of if we should do this it is what more can we do to ensure civil liberties are not being trampled on and what more can we do more for those that have been impacted by the opioid epidemic.”
“I think this is a good first start,” he concluded.
Council will bring the marijuana decriminalization ordinance to its third and final reading during its next meeting Monday, Sept. 28. The video of last Monday’s session is available on the city government Facebook page.
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.
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