"What we don't want is ticky-tack fines for ticky-tack crimes, particularly around low-level marijuana use," said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. "We know we want to lessen fines and lessen avenues to get in trouble with the courts in the first place — that's a road we don't want people to go down."
But some community members and local leaders have a different view. They think it was a mistake to remove penalties for marijuana use because it sends the wrong message — particularly to young people — that the drug is not harmful.
“I think it gives a bad impression of us as a community,” said Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Tony Capizzi.
Also, court data reveal that racial disparities in pot possession citations persist, and some community members and leaders say there is more work to do to make enforcement of marijuana laws more equitable.
In November 2018, nearly three in four Dayton voters who cast ballots in an advisory election voted in favor of decriminalizing minor marijuana offenses.
On Jan. 9, 2019, city commissioners passed legislation that changed Dayton’s laws to reduce penalties and eliminate fines for small-scale marijuana and hashish possession and possession of paraphernalia used only for pot.
The changes took effect 30 days later, on Feb. 7, 2019, and pot possession cases in Dayton immediately declined the following month.
Elected leaders and others who supported decriminalization said it was an encouraging start, but they hoped to see long-lasting reductions in pot cases.
A year later, Dayton Municipal Court data show the reduction was not short-lived.
MORE: Dayton’s pot decriminalization: Here’s how police were told to respond
Between Feb. 7, 2019, and Dec. 31, 2019, there were 330 minor marijuana possession cases filed in Dayton Municipal Court, according to court data obtained by this newspaper.
That’s 638 fewer cases from the same period in 2018, when 968 people were cited in municipal court. During the same period in 2017, there were 878 cases.
Dayton amended its code to make it clear that the city does not want law enforcement to focus on low-level marijuana possession, said Martin Gehres, Dayton assistant city attorney who helped craft the language.
Marijuana already was a minor misdemeanor, but the city, in keeping with the wishes of the electorate, decided to eliminate the $150 penalties and court costs that can be burdensome to citizens, especially lower-income residents, he said.
“The idea behind this was always to enforce the law to the maximum extent for dealers and not prioritize users of marijuana,” Gehres said.
He said Dayton voters overwhelmingly supported decriminalization, which is in line with growing national support for legalization.
Marijuana is legal in Ohio’s neighbor to the north, Michigan. Illinois just legalized pot. Gehres thinks it is only a matter of time before the Buckeye State follows suit.
After Dayton decriminalized marijuana, Cincinnati and Columbus did the same. Cleveland is working to decriminalize marijuana.
EARLIER: Here’s how Dayton plans to decriminalize pot in the new year
Reducing stigma of arrests
Decriminalization advocates say the decrease in citations and court cases is very good news, because the war on drugs, especially related to cannabis, has been a massive failure with unfortunate consequences.
They claim marijuana laws are antiquated and unjustly saddle people who use a drug no more powerful or harmful than alcohol with criminal records that can disqualify them for jobs or crucial benefits, like public housing and tuition assistance.
Decriminalization allows police and prosecutors to prioritize limited resources toward the pursuit of more serious crimes, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, a group that calls for the legalization of marijuana for adults.
“It also reduces the long-term ramifications that would be otherwise placed upon offenders, such as the loss of liberty, the stigma of an arrest and criminal record and the economic hardships associated with defending against a criminal prosecution,” he said.
MORE: Dayton would put recreational marijuana on ballot if it had the power, Mayor Whaley says
NORML, however, contends that decriminalization is not nearly as beneficial as legalization.
The group says reducing or eliminating penalties still does not reduce the cannabis black market and continues to lead to unnecessary and sometimes troublesome interactions between law enforcement and citizens.
Whaley said marijuana decriminalization was one of the ways the city is trying to make its processes and systems more fair and just for citizens.
She said the city recently announced changes to its towing practices to be less burdensome on citizens, and work continues to figure out how to reduce evictions and make them less disruptive and painful.
“We recognize the system has gotten too heavy on fees,” Whaley said.
Whaley said some people who sell marijuana illegally also are involved in the sale of more serious drugs, and police need tools to go after dealers. She said marijuana charges may remain useful and justified in some cases.
Whaley said the drop in pot cases is encouraging, though the city doesn’t have a goal to reduce the caseload by any kind of specific percentage.
Court data indicate that many of the people cited with marijuana possession last year were also charged with additional offenses.
A February 2019 executive order from Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl instructed officers to use their discretion when they come across suspected marijuana possession.
The order says officers can issue warnings instead of citations and can confiscate marijuana for destruction.
Officers were told they can charge people with marijuana under state code if they have reason to believe suspects were guilty of more serious offenses.
After Dayton’s amended laws took effect, law enforcement officers filed 296 citations in Dayton municipal court under state code and about 34 under city code. State code still carries fines and court costs.
Biehl said the decline in minor misdemeanor marijuana citations does not impeded or limit officers’ ability to discover whether there is more serious illegal conduct taking place.
“We have not lost an avenue of investigation or enforcement in finding those who are dealing marijuana illegally,” he said.
MORE: Dayton could decriminalize marijuana. How that’s different than legalization.
Judge: Wrong idea for kids
Some people, like Judge Capizzi, think decriminalization was a bad decision.
Capizzi said decriminalization gives children and young people the wrong idea that smoking pot is safe.
About 70% of children in the juvenile justice system are using some kind of drug — oftentimes marijuana, Capizzi said, and marijuana is bad for young people, because their brains are still developing.
Under the law, kids cannot use marijuana.
But decriminalization and legalization lead to the same problems as alcohol, which is young people see their parents and other adults consume booze and assume they can do the same without consequences, Capizzi said.
“It gives young people another excuse to use drugs,” he said. “I think it’s short-sighted.”
Capizzi said he understands the city’s motivations to reduce marijuana cases, which can clog up the courts.
But he said he thinks decriminalization may create more problems than it solves.
Marijuana adds to juvenile delinquency because it gives kids more reasons to skip school, break the law and commit crimes to pay for their drug habits, he said.
“In many ways, it’s the same as how booze was 50 years ago,” Capizzi said. “Kids were skipping school to drink a pint of vodka or drink Boone’s Farm Wine. Now, they skip school to smoke two or three joints.”
When marijuana is decriminalized or legalized, substantial resources need to be made available in the community to help prevent young people from using the drug and treatment for those with the harmful habit, Capizzi said.
Other critics have said that decriminalization could lead to more impaired motorists and public safety headaches.
Mayor: ‘Prohibition is not the answer’
Whaley said she agrees that the research shows that marijuana use before the age of 21 is harmful for long-term brain health.
She said she is in favor of any effort to protect young people from substance use.
But the mayor said she disagrees with the notion that decriminalization somehow endorses substance use, especially among youth.
“I think temperance and prohibition is not the answer — that’s been proven in the history of America,” she said. “But I think we need to be thoughtful and not encourage teenagers to smoke marijuana either.”
The mayor and others say marijuana laws have disproportionately impacted people of color, who are cited, arrested and charged with pot offenses at much higher rates than whites, even though marijuana use is fairly consistent across people of all races.
Last year, after decriminalization reforms took effect, nearly 75% of the people cited for marijuana possession in the city were black, while less than 25% were white, municipal court data show. Criminal defendants whose races were not identified were excluded from this estimate.
The city of Dayton’s population is 55% white and about 40% black.
More needs to be done to eliminate the racial disparities in pot possession cases, said Tasha Rountree, a medical marijuana patient and advocate who helped persuade city leaders to consider pursuing decriminalization.
Rountree said she believes black residents are getting cited more frequently than white ones because they get pulled over more often.
She said she thinks police cite motorists caught with weed after a traffic stop to use the charges as a sort of bargaining chip. She said authorities will agree to drop the pot charge to get defendants to plead guilty to other offenses.
Rountree said marijuana helps lots of people, including many who have conditions and ailments but who can’t get medical marijuana cards for a variety of reasons, such as their jobs will not permit it.
“I did not decrim for patients,” she said. “I decrimmed for people, because I understand not everyone can legally become a patient.”
Rountree said she is working to open a private marijuana club where medical marijuana patients can use their medicine legally, similar to private alcohol establishments.
BY THE NUMBERS
65 — Percent decline in citations for minor pot offenses since Dayton decriminalized marijuana
330 — Number of minor marijuana possession cases from Feb. 7 to Dec. 31
968 — Number of marijuana possession cases from same time period in 2018.