Across the nation, black people are arrested and cited for pot more often than white people, decriminalization supporters said.
“I think the numbers bear it out that this is a civil rights issue, and a big criticism we’ve continued to have is that drug policy has been unequally applied based on race,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who personally plans to vote in favor of decriminalization.
Critics of decriminalization have said it could lead to more substance abuse, which contributes to vehicle crashes and harms job prospects.
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The Dayton Daily News reviewed about 300 minor misdemeanor pot possession cases filed in Dayton Municipal Court in the first quarter of 2018.
Minor misdemeanor pot possession was one of the more common offenses in criminal court, which police can charge under state or city code.
About seven in 10 defendants were black men, according to case information summaries. About 10 percent of defendants were black women.
About 14 percent were white men, and less than 6 percent were white females. A small number of cases did not have information identifying defendants’ race or gender.
The average age of people cited for having pot was 30, but defendants' ages ranged from 18 to 63. Dayton's population is about 55 percent white and 40 percent black, according to the U.S. Census.
Some advocates of reforming marijuana laws and civil rights groups say they hope Dayton residents two months from now will vote in favor of relaxing the city’s pot laws.
“Minor marijuana possession offenders, many of them young people, should not be saddled with a criminal record and the lifelong penalties and stigma associated with it,” said Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, which supports legalizing the “responsible use of marijuana” among adults.
Critics of decriminalization say removing the penalties for pot could lead to more substance abuse and public safety problems. Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer recently said employers already have a very hard time finding employees who can pass a drug test.
“Decriminalizing this illegal substance will only shrink our pool of qualified workers,” he said. “That will be terrible for our business community.”
Marijuana arrest rates across the nation are significantly higher for black people, even though a variety of research indicates that marijuana use is nearly the same between black and white Americans, advocates say.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health survey, conducted by a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, estimated that about 45 percent of black adults and 53 percent of white adults in 2016 reported ever using marijuana. Also, about 17 percent of black adults and 14 percent of white adults said they had used marijuana in the past year, the survey found.
“So any suggestion that disproportionate rates of arrest are explained by black people using or possessing marijuana more than white people should be rejected,” Angelina Jackson, assistant public defender for the Montgomery County Public Defender’s Office, wrote in an email.
“Further, I would urge caution in accepting any suggestion that marijuana citations are merely incidental to other arrests - it’s basically explaining the disparity by saying black people commit more crime in general so therefore they get more weed tickets. And that just isn't true.”
In Ohio, about 14 percent of adults said they had used marijuana in the past year, or about 1.4 million people, according to 2015 and 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health data.
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Dayton City Commission last month approved holding an advisory election on Nov. 6 to ask Dayton residents if they wish to decriminalize specific misdemeanor marijuana and hashish offenses.
If the majority of electors vote in favor of decriminalization, Dayton leaders plan to eliminate the $150 fine for minor misdemeanor pot possession and make other changes to reduce penalties related to pot, hash and marijuana paraphernalia violations.
The decriminalization proposal looks to be a modest but very welcome change to marijuana laws in the city Dayton, said Gary Daniels, spokesman for the ACLU of Ohio. Many minority community members are living paycheck to paycheck and a $150 fine can be a big hit to their budget, he said.
Marijuana possession of less than 100 grams is already a minor misdemeanor — a violation of the lowest level — but getting rid of the $150 fine will be very beneficial for those most impacted by enforcement of marijuana laws, which tend to be people of color and lower-income residents, he said.
“They bear the brunt of the war on drugs and have for the entire history of the war on drugs,” he said.
This newspaper’s review of municipal court records revealed that many people charged with pot possession do not pay the entire fine on time. People who are cited for minor marijuana possession and who do not pay the fine and do not show up in court face arrest for failure to appear.
“People get caught up in the criminal justice system that becomes more and more serious over time,” Daniels said. “You don’t show up to court, because you don’t have the money and are afraid of the consequences. Or you don’t pay the fine and then a warrant is put out for your arrest.”
He also said decriminalization promotes irresponsible substance abuse, which puts children and the motoring public at risk.