Ohio’s recreational cannabis initiative has been delayed due to coronavirus social distancing measures, and the petition’s language is also undergoing revisions at the request of Ohio’s Attorney General. Despite these setbacks, the movement is not dead in the Buckeye State.
During the election season, petitioners rely on interaction with the public to inform voters on ballot initiatives and to collect signatures. Without that in-person mechanism, all ballot initiatives and petitions could be delayed indefinitely. Tom Haren, Spokesperson for Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, has indicated the group is taking social distancing measures seriously during the pandemic.
“We made the decision early on that the health of our volunteers, supporters, medical marijuana patients, and the general public would be our primary concern,” he said. “As Ohio begins the process of re-opening, we are evaluating our options and hope to have more to share soon.”
Being unable to exercise democracy through legislation and proposed ballot measures has First Amendment implications, and addressing this in court has already been problematic. Earlier this month, a judge in Ohio’s Franklin County said he lacked the ability to make alterations to the state’s constitution that would allow fewer signatures to be collected during the pandemic. Freda Levenson of ACLU Ohio, who is representing Ohioans for Fair and Secure Elections, has concerns about what this could mean for election laws.
“The First Amendment says any infringement on speech, even if it’s temporary or brief is a violation of your rights,” she said. “They can’t say ‘you can talk later.’ You have a right to say it.”
But coronavirus is only part of the petition’s setbacks. In March, the Attorney General of Ohio informed the petitioners by letter that proposed legislation, which would amend the state’s constitution in order to legalize recreational cannabis, was insufficient and required additional information.
“Upon reviewing Section (A) of the proposed amendment and comparing it to the summary language, I am unable to certify the summary as a fair and truthful representation of the proposed amendment,” wrote Attorney General Dave Yost in the rejection letter. “Section (A) of the proposed amendment lists several findings and declarations that the amendment proposes to be made by ‘the people of the state of Ohio.’ The summary makes no mention of these findings and declarations. Thus, it completely fails to inform a potential signer that the amendment elevates these ‘findings and declarations’ to a constitutional standard.”
Haren has said that the group will continue to revise their proposed amendment based on the Attorney General’s notes.
Ohio is one of several states who have a strict medical cannabis program that is largely unsuccessful due to overregulation and lack of available products. Of patients who are qualified and enrolled in the program, thirty percent have not made a single purchase.
“If you’re a patient in Ohio, it’s hard to participate in Ohio’s medical marijuana program,” Haren said. “We were promised a program that worked.” Ohio’s state medical cannabis business association is currently not supporting the bill.
Up to an ounce of cannabis for recreational use would be allowed under the proposed legislation, along with up to six plants for personal use. The state would establish a regulatory body that would oversee production, quality control, licensing, and retail distribution of cannabis along with a proposed sales tax structure, 25% of which would go towards social equity programs.
Image by David Mark from Pixabay
Adding another wrinkle to slew of police encounters that have dominated national headlines, the smell of marijuana coming from the car of Philando Castile appears to have directly contributed to his fatal shooting in St. Anthony, Minnesota last July. While the recently released video has been widely circulated, the testimony of the officer who shot Castile, Jeronimo Yarnez, offers us even more insight into the tragic death and points to a country that is still coming to grips with the facts and stereotypes of cannabis. As Castile’s family, friends and supporters look for answers, Castile’s untimely death also shows an even greater need for cannabis law reform, particularly within minority communities ravaged by an unequal enforcement of the law.
Although it’s impossible to know just what would have transpired if Castile’s car did not contain the smell of marijuana, we know from Yarnez himself that the presence of marijuana was a significant factor in the tragedy. In his own words, Yarnez stated that “if he (Castile) has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her second-hand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me?” For Yarnez, the mere presence of marijuana – regardless of whether it was Castile who was using – was enough to fear for his life, ultimately leading to Yarnez pumping seven shots into Castile’s car.
While the facts are stunning on the surface, they become even more troublesome when considering that cannabis possession is only a misdemeanor in Minnesota for small amounts (under 42.5 grams) and carries a maximum fine of just $200. Yarnez’s interpretation of the situation also brings about a slew of significant concerns, including the summary judgement that Castile was actively using cannabis in front of his daughter – a claim that Yarnez was not in a position to make without a field sobriety test. Even if Yarnez was correct on Castile’s usage of marijuana, however, the use of lethal force for a minor violation is likely to bring about a slew of lawsuits from Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and other parties close to Castile.
Racial disparity in marijuana arrests
(Philando Castile (Star Tribune photo)
The Castile tragedy also adds to the ongoing debate on social justice, especially given the alarming rate at which African-Americans are arrested for cannabis. According to the ACLU, black Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, pointing to a demonstrable bias that continues to wreak havoc in communities of color. Given Yarnez’s own views and judgments on marijuana usage, it appears extremely likely that his bias laid the groundwork for the decision to open fire and ultimately prematurely end the life of Castile. For those advocating the end of the often criticized prohibition on cannabis, Castile’s death brings about a fresh outrage given the role that marijuana played in the shooting.
Castile’s case is far from the only example of law enforcement officials failing to understand the effects of cannabis when facing an altercation. Also in summer of 2016, Keith Lamont Scott was confronted by two officers in Charlotte, North Carolina after he was observed smoking marijuana, which ultimately led to a fatal confrontation when the officers saw that he had a gun in a holster on his ankle. Much like the Castile tragedy, officers originally arrived on the scene looking for a different African-American suspect and then cited the “illegal drugs and the gun Mr. Scott had in his possession” as a reason for the quick escalation. Similar to Minnesota, it is a misdemeanor to possess a small amount of marijuana in North Carolina and there is also a max fine of just $200.
Highly publicized altercations like the Castile and Scott shootings point to law enforcement agencies unable to control inherent biases or to correctly address the facts of cannabis consumption. Considering that marijuana is more likely to lead to marked decrease in aggression, there is a pattern of officers viewing potential suspects in ways that contradict the actual effects of the drug. Given the dramatically higher rates of marijuana-based encounters with law enforcement in minority communities, the risks of consuming cannabis are disproportionately based upon race, adding fuel to an already fiery debate about the role of cannabis laws in social justice reform. As fully legalized cannabis becomes more and more of a possibility, overcoming long-held biases by law enforcement officials will remain a crucial obstacle as cannabis and civil rights advocates look to challenge the status quo and improve upon a system that continues to turn deadly.
The American Civil Liberties Union just became an unlikely ally in the fight to legalize marijuana use in New Jersey. The ACLU recently released a new report blasting the Garden State for unfair treatment and arrest of those using marijuana products in the state. Citing law enforcement’s now eight decades of attempting to “arrest marijuana uses out of existence”, the report showcases the aggressive and often racially biased punishments doled out to marijuana users in New Jersey.
The ACLU released in-depth analysis of the issue of overly aggressive arrest practices when it comes to marijuana use. Not only are arrests significantly on the rise, they are becoming more racially charged and disparate than ever. What’s going on in the Garden State, and what can and should be done to halt the increasingly aggressive stance taken by law enforcement? The ACLU findings provide some clues:
A record number of arrests: In 2013, law enforcement in New Jersey made over 24,000 marijuana possession arrests, up by 26% since the year 2000. According to the ACLU, an individual is arrested for marijuana possession in the state every 22 minutes. Beach areas Cape May and Seaside Park lead the state in the number of arrests per capita.
Racial inequities at an all-time high: The way an individual is treated by officers and the court varies in New Jersey based on race. According to the ACLU, an African American was three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than a white user, even though both races use marijuana at similar rates. In some areas, like Point Pleasant Beach, a Black individual is a whopping 31% more likely to be arrested for possession than a white person. 88% of arrests are of users, not dealers; just regular New Jersey citizens found in the possession of a small amount of marijuana.
Wasted resources: The state spends more than $143 million per year pursuing marijuana users; the state spent over a billion dollars in the last decade to arrest, prosecute and jail offenders. This money could be better spent on everything from education to drug treatment or community outreach, but instead goes towards prosecuting and jailing those found in possession of marijuana.
Penalties for Marijuana Possession in New Jersey
The aggressive arrest and prosecution of those possessing even small amounts of marijuana is an issue as well. Jail, a criminal record and a suspended driver’s license are just the beginning; every aspect of life is impacted by those who are convicted of possession. It can be more difficult to obtain a job and a conviction could prevent an individual from securing a place to live, going to college or even volunteering at a child’s school. The ACLU report highlights the devastating impact these aggressive laws and penalties has on the lives of New Jersey’s citizens.
A Better Solution for New Jersey
Citing the harsh penalties and racial inequalities when it comes to both arrests and consequences, the ACLU, along with local civil rights leaders and physicians support the growing public call to legalize marijuana in the Garden State. Legalization will drastically reduce the number of arrests and allow law enforcement to focus time, energy and resources on more meaningful causes. Recent polling says that almost 60% of New Jersey residents support the legalization of marijuana and feel that the ability to tax and regulate the drug would bring a much-needed change to the state.
The ACLU calls for New Jersey to halt their racially biased approach to marijuana arrest and prosecution. In addition, they call for the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana in the state. The ACLU also calls for police departments to properly track Latinx arrest data; there is currently no arrest data to track the disparity of arrests in the Hispanic community. Finally, the New Jersey Attorney General is asked to investigate the extreme racial disparity in the arrests of the past decade and to use this data to improve the criminal justice system in the state.
The governor of Maryland is demanding a study be conducted to increase diversity in the state’s new medical marijuana industry.
“As the issue of promoting diversity is of great importance to me and my administration, your office should begin this process immediately in order to ensure opportunities for minority participation in the industry,” wrote governor Larry Hogan to the Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs, after most of the businesses who were approved for cultivation licenses in 2016 had white owners.
Hogan’s letter comes after a failed attempt by the General Assembly to reserve additional permits for businesses owned by minorities. Maryland’s medical marijuana laws have provisions for ethnic diversity, but it appears the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission did not consider race when reviewing applicants. The state’s Attorney General’s office suggested that evaluating applicants based on race could conflict with the constitution. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus criticized the commission for giving up too easily on the push towards diversity.
In the marijuana industry, ethnic diversity has been a priority for advocates who understand the racial inequality of anti-drug legislation. In news not surprising to the ACLU, it was revealed that Richard Nixon’s drug war was less about illicit substances and more about marginalizing ethnic minorities and liberal social movements, according to a former aide. As the drug war developed decades later, African Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.
Hogan’s pursuit of diversity may not be successful, but lawmakers elsewhere are making similar attempts. City Council officials in Oakland, CA passed an amendment to allow permits be given specifically to applicants who have been the victim of unjust marijuana laws. Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who proposed the amendment, saw a clear need for diversity in among marijuana business owners.
“When we look at the eight we have one that is owned by an African-American. One out of eight,” Brooks said. “Everybody ought to have an opportunity to compete.”
The city is considering expanding the amendment to broad the criteria to include a larger number of potential applicants.
For now, Hogan is asking that state agencies work together “as expeditiously as possible,” to come up with a solution. There is speculation that a special legislative session could be organized to produce a bill, but the logistics of such a session seem to be befuddling lawmakers.
Sadly, the War on Drugs in the United States has produced severely unequal outcomes among racial groups, with the bulk of marijuana related arrests being driven by racial discrimination from law enforcement and it’s guiding bureaucratic agenda.
The American Civil Liberties Union pointed this out in June 2013 when The War On Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests was published. This report analyzes the number of marijuana arrests per state, by race, from 2001 to 2010. It also takes a look at how much money is wasted enforcing marijuana prohibition laws in each state and across the nation.
Marijuana use reported by whites and blacks has been nearly equal from 2001 to 2010 with white people between the ages of 18 and 25 reporting more usage than black people of the same age range. If marijuana is used equally between both races, how is it possible that black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges?
The info-graphic below expresses many other facts pointed out by the ACLU report, including which four counties in the United States rank highest for racially biased arrests.
This figure, 3.7, is an average number representing all fifty states. This means that some states have a shockingly higher rate of difference. For example, in the state of Iowa, a black person is 8.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than a white person. Minnesota and Illinois follow closely behind with 7.8 and 7.6. Whereas, New Mexico and Maine are on the much lower end with 1.9 and 2.1. Hawaii is the only state that shows zero racial disparity for marijuana arrests, but black people only make up 2.3% of the population.
Law enforcement agencies operate under policies that praise officers for the quantity of arrests, rather than the quality. The number of people arrested for marijuana in 2010 surpassed the total number of people arrested for ALL violent crimes combined. Marijuana charges now account for half of all total drug arrests, and 88% of those are for just possessing marijuana. It is much easier for officers to target people on the streets in minority communities, and be viewed as successful, than it is to work long hours investigating a violent crime.
In 2010, the United States as a whole spent over $3 billion to enforce marijuana laws. This means that the U.S. has wasted an obscene amount of money ruining the lives of many, over a plant that is now legal for retail sales in two states. The Director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, Ezekiel Edwards, described this tragedy best, in a 2013 press release,
“The aggressive policing of marijuana is time-consuming, costly, racially biased, and doesn’t work. These arrests have a significant detrimental impact on people’s lives, as well as on the communities in which they live. When people are arrested for possessing even tiny amounts of marijuana, they can be disqualified from public housing or student financial aid, lose or find it more difficult to obtain employment, lose custody of their child, or be deported.”
The ACLU and many people of the United States are calling for marijuana to be legalized, regulated and taxed, or at the very least decriminalized.
Legalization and taxation would solve the problems of unjust, racially biased arrests as well as wasting tax payer dollars. In recent months, the District of Columbia and Philadelphia have realized this, and decriminalized marijuana possession as a result. In states that will not alter marijuana laws, the ACLU suggests that law enforcement agencies move marijuana possession arrests to the bottom of the list of priorities, and focus on real crimes instead.
The November 2014 election will be a look into the future of marijuana policy reform in the United States, with voters in both Oregon and Alaska having the opportunity to stand up against these racially biased arrests by ending the war on marijuana in those states. The decision of voters in these two states next month, will set a precedence for the remaining states to join the movement in the 2016 primary election.