As Ohio’s medical marijuana program comes closer to bearing fruit, Columbus leaders hope to join the growing number of U.S. cities decriminalizing recreational marijuana.
Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin says he wants to “start the conversation” sometime in the first quarter of 2019. While he’s not sure where that conversation will finish, Hardin’s starting point would be a big change for city law: making the possession of up to 200 grams of marijuana a minor misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $25.
Current law classifies the possession of between 100 and 200 grams of marijuana as a fourth-degree misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $250 and up to 30 days in jail.
“I have a saying that, ‘If it’s not for all, it’s not for us,’” Hardin says. “And I think that applies as well to marijuana possession and who is charged, and how minor infractions get turned into a snowball effect that negatively affects people's lives.”
Hardin says he’s particularly interested in cutting the number of young men of color incarcerated for drug possession. Ohio prison data show black men are much more likely to be imprisoned for drug charges.
If Hardin is successful in decriminalizing marijuana, Columbus would join major cities like Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Detroit in treating pot possession like a parking ticket. Ten states, most recently neighboring Michigan, have legalized recreational pot.
Cities and states might be taking marijuana more lightly, but federal law still treats it as a Schedule One drug on par with heroin and cocaine. While it has medically-recognized benefits, marijuana smoke is considered a carcinogen and doctors say it can harm the brain development of teenagers and young adults.
Because of that, Hardin says he’s ready for pushback from people who support tougher marijuana laws.
“Any conversation around narcotics, there will be folks on both sides," Hardin says. "What we’re trying to do is make sure we have fair and just criminal justice laws, and fixing an issue that many folks see now.”
Hardin’s announcement about decriminalization came on Monday, the same day City Council approved zoning regulations for medical marijuana businesses. It also follows November's landslide defeat of Issue 1, a statewide ballot issue that sought to cut jail time for low-level drug offenders and use the savings on treatment programs.