Silver handcuffs laying on green marijuana leaves

Ignoring criticism that they weren’t going far enough, Columbus City Council used home-rule powers at their July 22 meeting to reduce penalties for low-level marijuana offenses below the state’s penalties.


The legislation makes Columbus the 13th Ohio municipality to reduce marijuana penalties below the state’s punishments. The Free Press and many others feel the legislation is far too late in the making.

What the legislation truly reveals is a painful and obvious history. For decades Columbus police and courts have unfairly enforced marijuana possession laws along racial lines and will continue to do so.

For possessing less than 100 grams or having marijuana paraphernalia in the city, the penalty is now a fine not exceeding $10, while state law provides for a maximum fine of $150.

For possessing 100 or more grams but less than 200, the punishment is a fine not exceeding $25. State law on the other hand allows for penalties up to a $250 fine and 30 days in jail. State law also still makes possessing 200 or more grams a felony.  

The Legal Aid Society of Columbus will also receive an additional $130,000 for attorneys to assist in sealing past possession records.

The group mainly responsible for pushing the reforms, the Sensible Movement Coalition, says that reducing penalties to the amounts chosen will not end racially unequal application of the laws.

Statistics provided by the Columbus city government reveal that African Americans were almost 70 percent of defendants in the over 1,400 marijuana cases brought in municipal court since 2016. Blacks are only about 28% of the city’s population. 

During public hearings, Sensible Movement Coalition director Chad Thompson told council even after penalties in some cities were lowered the racially disparate enforcement continued, and in one city, actually increased.  

“If you just penalize even down to $10, that racial discrepancy will not end. In Pittsburgh, it got worse,” said Thompson during a past hearing.

He said the proven method for ending the racial bias is to reduce the fines to zero, with court costs suspended. Although the Columbus City Attorney’s office advised council that this cannot legally be done, the action has been taken in 12 Ohio municipalities without legal challenge.

Kyle Strickland, senior legal analyst at OSU’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, also testified, saying decreasing the penalties even greater is needed to end unequal enforcement.  “We continue to over-police and over-surveil communities of color,” he said during a hearing.

He stressed that Columbus criminalizes those in low-income communities but considers the same crime insignificant in other outlying communities (ie, white suburbia). 

“At the very least, we have to have a real conversation about why these disparities continue to exist,” he said.

City Council didn’t say whether they will have such a conversation or ever address the issue.

Another reason council gave for the legislation is to reduce the collateral effects of arrests. Several experts testified that marijuana arrest and their conviction records can be lifelong obstacles to obtaining housing, employment, education and other aids to lifting people out of poverty.

By increasing funding to the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, council is alleviating this problem. But Patrick Higgins, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, testified that employers and others can still sometimes find the records by searches using private data-aggregators. 

An issue council ignored was whether the city attorney’s office should refuse to prosecute low-level marijuana cases, as some prosecutors elsewhere have done. For instance, the district attorney in Brooklyn, New York, dropped cases after seeing shocking racial inequalities in arrest rates.

Simply put, Brooklyn police won’t arrest for small possession knowing prosecutors will drop the case. No surprise is how the Brooklyn district attorney reduced low-level marijuana prosecutions by 98% since last year. Those who drive high in Brooklyn, however, will be prosecuted.

Brooklyn’s common-sense position is just that, an act of common sense. Marijuana arrests cause more problems for those charged, and ending arrests may cease any downward domino effect, along with allowing law enforcement to concentrate on important matters.  

But Columbus City Council appears to be having it both ways. They can show progressives that marijuana laws have been reformed with lower penalties and reduced collateral consequences. Yet they appease drug-enforcement hardliners by keeping marijuana possession punishable despite unequal enforcement.

The Sensible Movement Coalition’s overall takeaway about City Council’s effort to ease the punishment and the lifelong crutch of marijuana possession is that Columbus chose highly inadequate policy due to a lack of true leadership.