Columbus Lawmakers Vote in Favor of Reducing Penalties for Marijuana Possession

After a public hearing, Columbus City Council voted to reduce possession penalties and support efforts to seal prior convictions.
Columbus Lawmakers Vote in Favor of Reducing Penalties for Marijuana Possession

On Monday night, Columbus City Council voted to make Ohio’s capital the state’s latest city to lower penalties for possessing marijuana. Monday’s vote came on the heels of a public hearing during which Columbus residents expressed their support for the decriminalization proposal. The approved ordinance significantly overhauls penalties for possessing marijuana in Columbus, Ohio.

Possession up to 100 grams now carries a fine of just $10, while possession between 100 and 200 grams carries a $25 fine. Neither possession charge carries the possibility of jail time, but possession over 200 grams would still constitute a felony under Ohio law. But unlike a recent decriminalization ordinance passed in Cincinnati, Ohio that cut provisions for criminal record expungement at the last minute, Columbus’ new decriminalization measure sets aside $120,000 to help people seal past marijuana convictions. The new rules are scheduled to go into effect in 30 days.

Columbus City Council Reduces Fines and Eliminates Jail for Marijuana Possession

Ohio’s largest municipalities aren’t waiting for state lawmakers to legalize cannabis. Instead, they’re passing their own decriminalization ordinances to reduce fines and penalties for marijuana possession. Columbus City Council’s move to decriminalize possession follows Cincinnati, which decriminalized possession up to 100 grams in June. Since 2015, several Ohio municipalities, large and small, have enacted ordinances reducing penalties for simple possession.

In its arguments in favor of decriminalization and sealing marijuana convictions, Columbus City Council cited inequalities in the criminal justice system and the need to address the long-standing consequences of having a drug conviction on one’s record. Even misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions can have serious effects on someone’s ability to find good employment, secure stable and affordable housing and access financial services like loans.

“There are two key elements to the proposal,” Council President Shannon G. Hardin wrote in a statement ahead of the vote, “lowering fines for small amounts of marijuana possession and increasing funds for Legal Aid attorneys to help seal records for minor convictions so Columbus residents can get good-paying jobs.”

Council President Hardin’s sentiments were echoed by the roughly 40 people who attended last Thursday’s public hearing on the proposal. Everyone from pastors, teachers, coaches, parents and members of minority communities cheered on the measure. In fact, many pushed for city council to go further and eliminate fines and penalties altogether. But laws without penalties attached can lead to repeals on constitutional grounds, as happened after Toledo eliminated all penalties for possession.

Columbus’ New Decriminalization Will Help Seal Convictions, Assist Job-Seekers

Columbus’ new decriminalization ordinance goes further than just reducing penalties and eliminating jail time. It also sets aside funds and resources to help people seal past marijuana possession convictions. In addition to lowering fines for paraphernalia and possession up to 100 grams to $10, and fines for possession between 100 and 200 grams to $25, the ordinance creates a $120,000 grant to support the Legal Aide Society of Columbus. Legal Aide is a non-profit that provides legal assistance to economically disadvantaged people in central Ohio. The money will help train attorneys to help people seal past marijuana convictions and create a new staff position dedicated to those efforts.

The ordinance also ensures that people convicted under the new rules won’t get a criminal record. Anyone convicted under the new rules won’t have to report or admit it an an application for a job or anything else, either. The ordinance also specifies that the new possession penalties cannot apply to any of Ohio’s registered medical marijuana patients. Ohio legalized medical cannabis use in 2016, but dispensaries have only recently opened their doors to patients.

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