From the Editor: Race, Inequity and Legal Weed

Dave Ghose
Grow Ohio in Zanesville

Over the first three months of 2019, an extraordinary thing has occurred in Ohio: Nearly 10,000 people have legally purchased $2.9 million in marijuana. The state’s new medical marijuana program is forcing a social and cultural reckoning, one that’s not only affecting health care but also shaking up employment practices, local and federal politics and even the tourism business. You can read all about this new era in our May cover story (“Guide to Medical Marijuana in Ohio”), an A–Z primer on all the developments, major players and new terminology of this transformative moment.

It’s an unusual time, to say the least. Ohio and 33 other states have approved either medicinal or recreational weed while the federal government continues to classify marijuana as an illegal, controlled substance alongside heroin, cocaine and other highly addictive narcotics. The result is a legal limbo, with increasing quantities of mainstream money flowing into a growing new industry that the feds could shut down in a second if they desired.

Another part of that legal limbo was evident in late March, when the first medical marijuana dispensary opened in Columbus, an event that was greeted with long lines and considerable media hoopla. Shannon Hardin couldn’t help but see a racial dynamic at play as people bought legal weed for the first time in Columbus: a new above-ground market with mostly white customers coexisting with the old racially biased prohibition.

“What I can almost promise you is that the demographics of the legal versus illegal will be very, very different,” says the African-American president of Columbus City Council. “Folks who look like me and come from communities like I grew up in, who have struggled and been on the underside of the criminal justice conversation about marijuana, are still going to be vulnerable today, and folks who are now part of the new medical marijuana system are going to be fine.”

Indeed, numerous studies have shown the inequities of the war on drugs. Even though whites and blacks use marijuana at about the same rate, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested nationwide, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. That racial disparity exists in Columbus, too. From 2016 to 2019, black men represented about 62 percent of the defendants in the nearly 1,500 marijuana cases that Columbus police brought to Franklin County Municipal Court, according to a Columbus City Council memo.

As Columbus embraces medical marijuana, Hardin wants to steer the conversation to this question of fairness. He’s putting together a proposal that would reduce marijuana possession penalties in Columbus. If convicted of possessing 100 grams of marijuana or less, the fine drops from $150 to $10. And if convicted of possessing 100 to 200 grams, the penalty changes from a $250 fine and a maximum 30 days of incarceration to no jail time and a $25 fine. “We can’t have a marijuana policy in Columbus that is not for all of us,” Hardin says. “I don’t want that to be lost in this conversation.”