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Local Data: Black People More Likely To Face Consequences For Marijuana Possession

Update: Data for January 2020 was not available by press time. 

Protests throughout the summer of 2020 demanded the national spotlight focus on the separate and unequal reality Black and white people face when it comes to policing. Cincinnati is not immune to that reality. It recently released reports about marijuana-related infractions in the city that show indecencies among racial lines.

In 2020, 426 Black people were warned, cited or arrested for being in possession of 100 grams or less of marijuana. Fifty-one white people received the same consequences. In fact, data released by the Cincinnati Police Department shows there were some months of the year when no white people were cited for the low level marijuana offenses. That's not true of any months for Black people.

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The monthly data was released as part of a motion agreed upon in 2019 by the Law and Public Safety Committee requesting the information be reported. Council member Greg Landsman was one of the people who requested the data.

"It wasn't surprising, unfortunately. Even though, you know, marijuana is something that people use across the board -- meaning irrespective of race, or income or gender --  the folks that were getting arrested and whose use of marijuana was being criminalized, disruptive, disproportionately was young Black men," he said. "And so, you know, seeing that data was unfortunately not surprising."

City Council voted to decriminalize possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana in 2019. That should mean no fines, jail time or employment disclosure would be required.

But council doesn't have the authorization to overhaul state law, which requires a citation and $150 fine for having 100 grams or less of marijuana.

Police Chief Eliot Isaac said, at the time, his officers would enforce all legally enforceable ordinances in the city.

He briefly addressed the discrepancy in numbers during a virtual town hall Wednesday. He said he can't know the reasoning behind the discrepancies without knowing the details of the cases, but suggested poverty might be a factor. 

National data, however, indicates about half of all adult Americans have smoked marijuana at least once and about a quarter of them are regular users. 

"State law is still such that, according to our legal department, there's only so much we can do, even though we passed an ordinance to say, look, this is no longer a criminal activity, meaning no misdemeanor and no fine," Landsman said.

He said police still have to confiscate marijuana if they find someone with it, and they "feel like the law requires them to issue a warning ticket."

This isn't the only time data recently showed racial differences when it comes to Cincinnati policing.

At the end of 2019, an investigation by the Ohio Center For Investigative Journalism showed Black people were stopped at a 58% higher rate than whites in Cincinnati, as pedestrians and as drivers.

Isaac, who is Black, told WCPO in February, "The data is where we find ourselves being taken to the same places … It turns out that those locations tend to be communities that are of color. They tend to be in communities that are more poverty-stricken, communities that have challenges with education and a myriad of things."

But Landsman says that doesn't necessarily explain the discrepancies of pulled-over drivers or marijuana infractions.

"We are engaged with the administration now to determine what we need to do legislatively, what we can do legislatively, to really push the administration and the police department to look at why it is that these interactions are happening far more often between police and young Black men versus anyone else, and what we need to do in order to reduce, if not eliminate, that," he said.

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