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City Council Passes Ordinance Decriminalizing Marijuana Misdemeanors

There will be smaller penalties for marijuana possession in Cleveland under legislation approved by city council Monday night.

The measure lowers penalties for possession of up to 200 grams, or seven ounces, removing fines and prison time. It aims to reduce incarceration rates and harsher enforcement against minorities.

The legislation amends city ordinances passed in 2003 and 1989, which created the initial penalties. It was passed with no legal objections from the city’s law department.

High fines and jail time for marijuana possession disproportionately affect black people, said Councilman Blaine Griffin, who sponsored the legislation.

“We’re trying not to put an undue burden on people in our society who have marijuana offenses, to try to make sure that we eliminate disparities,” Griffin said.

African Americans are five to seven times more likely to face penalties for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, Griffin said.

“This is the first step, but I do think in the future we do need to look at statewide legislation, as well as federal, to decriminalize and actually to legalize marijuana across the country,” Griffin said.

Reducing jail time for marijuana possession could also ease conditions at local jails, Griffin said.

The Cuyahoga County jail has faced overcrowding and allegations of inmate mistreatment, and a 2018 U.S. Marshals Service report called conditions “inhumane.”

“This is a modern-day Prohibition, and this is the first step that we’re taking to really try to make sure that we lessen the burden of marijuana penalties of our community,” Griffin said.

Other council members questioned the amount of marijuana that the ordinance decriminalizes, arguing 200 grams is too high.

Councilman Michael Polensek brought an ounce of herbs (not marijuana) to the finance committee meeting Monday as a visual tool to evaluate those numbers.

“Seven containers of this, that’s not for medicinal purposes,” Polensek said. “I understand and I concur with my colleague, I commend my colleague. There have been people who have made mistakes in their lives and they’ve gone on and they’re paying a severe price for this. But at the end of the day, that is a lot of pot.”

The 200-gram limit comes from other similar legislation and research, Griffin said.

Law enforcement can still confiscate the marijuana and issue a citation.

The move comes after other Ohio cities, including Toledo, Dayton and Cincinnati, made similar changes.

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