PORTSMOUTH — Following two months of heated debates- taking in public comments and petitions- Portsmouth City Council defeated an ordinance to decriminalize marijuana possession of amounts up to 200 grams Monday, Sept. 28.
Despite having the 3-2 majority, supported by 1st Ward Councilman Sean Dunne, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Charlotte Gordon, and 5th Ward Councilman Edwin Martell, four votes are required for Council to pass legislation. Mayor Kevin Johnson and 4th Ward Councilman Andrew McManus were the dissenting votes.
If it would have passed, amendments would have come to Section 513.03(C) (2) Drug Abuse: Controlled Substance possession or use of the Portsmouth Codified Ordinances, 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 have been removed with the passing of the ordinance.
“I know we have had people that are signing petitions, but I want to hear everyone. I feel like the only way that would be possible is to place it on the ballot,” said McManus, as four other Ohio cities- Adena, Glouster, Jacksonville and Trimble- already have for this election.
6th Ward Councilman Thomas Lowe was not in attendance; his vote had the potential to reverse the course of action. Absent since May 26, Gordon and Dunne answered with ambiguity whether or not Lowe would have supported the ordinance. Not discussing the matter with him, Gordon could not say how Lowe would have voted. Dunne, on the other hand, did have those conversations and understood he would have supported.
Dunne, who proposed the amendment, said evidence presented in past sessions indicated public support and that the opposition had not done its homework in reviewing the effects of decriminalization. Reviewing those minutes, he presented the findings once again which he emphasized have not been contested once by Council:
- Decline in national teenage marijuana use
- No increase in teenage marijuana use in areas that have decriminalized or legalized
- Marijuana is not a gateway drug
- Marijuana can be used as a suppressant in the use of stronger drugs
Eighteen other city councils in Ohio have decriminalized already, he said and does not recall other Council members asking these local governments how it affected them. As in projects like the DORA and the dog park, Dunne asked for his fellow councilpeople to do their due diligence and he feels they have failed to do so.
“I think it is lazy to vote on this in opposition if you didn’t even bother to look at what is happening in other cities and if you haven’t looked at research in a way that is one way critical,” said Dunne.
“We are not saying there is no consequence, we are saying this is giving the police an option to not have such a great offense,” said Gordon, meaning the police could still act in accordance with Ohio law which criminalizes possession of marijuana. “I am a firm believer in if break you the law, there will be consequences.”
“A “Yes” vote does not condone the use,” she added. “A “Yes” vote is just saying let the consequence fit the crime. This is not a crime that would warrant criminalization, criminal records, and having someone start out in the criminal justice system.”
Public comments, both in statements read aloud during Council’s session and during the Facebook livestream, were mixed in sentiment for and against the resolution.
“This is about improving the lives of people, helping them be more employable, and not have a record over something like weed,” wrote one commenter on Facebook.
“If people aren’t responsible enough not to drink and drive when that has been legal for years then how can we trust people to use weed legally?” asked another.
Comments from law enforcement, however, were all against the measure. Scioto County Sheriff-elect and former Portsmouth Police Department officer David Thoroughman said the 200-gram amount was a substantial amount, a sum typically seen by those dealing drugs and not possessors.
Ultimately, he does not see it as a positive for the community in any way and as a waste of time.
“Laws are not enacted to ruin lives, they are enacted to make sure society prospers,” said Thoroughman, who has over 32 years in law enforcement.
In response to Dunne’s claims that enforcement of the law is racially-charged, Thoroughman recommended all Council members to participate in ride-alongs with police officers instead of siding with reports from the American Civil Liberties Union, which he claims is a biased institution.
As reported earlier by the Portsmouth Daily Times, the American Civil Liberties Union found in its 2010 Ohio study that African Americans were 4.1 times more likely than Caucasians 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.
“You will see that law enforcement is good,” said Thoroughman in his written comments to Council. “You will witness firsthand the tragedies they respond to most involving or as a result of drugs.”
Portsmouth Police Chief Debra Brewer joined Thoroughman in voicing her displeasure for decriminalization, saying she did not understand why Council brought it to agenda in the first place.
“I feel like we would been giving the wrong impression of Portsmouth,” said Brewer, asking Council to remember how the city’s pill mills attracted criminal activity. “We do not want to be known as the place that marijuana is legal.”
Not affecting their work, police will continue to arrest and give citations to those that possess in accordance with state law, said Brewer. Not in favor of the city circumventing this, she recommends Council write a petition to the Ohio General Assembly or place the issue on the ballot for citizens to vote.
Dunne hoped this ordinance would be the first step in many Council discussions regarding criminal justice reform and racial justice, which is at the basis of decriminalization in many cities. The “War on Drugs” has put law enforcement in an unfair position leading to confrontation, he said, and believes decriminalization could ease some of those tensions.
“As for myself, I have never been racially-profiled, but we want to show empathy with those that have,” said Dunne, adding avoidance and occasionally ignorance of racism both by the public and Council showed the need to take on this issue now. “We want to let people know that we do not support circumstances that reproduce racial inequalities, and this is one step toward it.”
“In Council meetings here, we unanimously define racism as a toxic threat to democracy,” added Dunne. “If we truly believe those words, we should ask what we are doing to address a toxic threat to democracy.”
Council’s decision could have longer-lasting impacts on the procedures conducted by the proponents of criminal justice reform, who Dunne identifies as himself, Gordon and Martell. Missing the fourth vote, Dunne said similar pieces of legislation will likely be placed on the backburner until a full Council can gather.
“We need people that have that they are supportive of it and two are opposed,” said Dunne, which he called one of the most important takeaways from Monday’s decision. “We have to wait until we get our sixth member back to move forward with other criminal justice reforms.”
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.
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