Local officials in Columbus and Baltimore announced they won’t pursue marijuana offenses in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
America’s relationship to marijuana is changing, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Governors openly lament their state didn’t legalize cannabis, marijuana retail is “essential business,” and scientists believe CBD could help treat COVID-19.
Now the coronavirus is impacting how cities approach criminal justice. Back in August, Columbus announced they would stop prosecuting low level marijuana offenses after state law legalized industrial hemp. Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein stated the new law meant city prosecutors couldn’t prove individuals were in possession of marijuana beyond reasonable doubt without laboratory testing.
Last week, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office announced they now had equipment to differentiate between hemp and marijuana, which remains illegal for adult use in the state. In a response, Klein said Columbus would still decline to pursue misdemeanor marijuana cases despite the advance in testing. He later added testing was just one reason his office stopped pursuing cannabis offenses.
“Our city council’s decision to institute a low-dollar fine for violations, and overall disparities and inequities in the criminal justice system” also contributed, Klein said.
The coronavirus also played a part. Columbus doesn’t want to fill its prison population with non-violent offenders at this time. Multiple states, including Ohio, have released non-violent inmates from their jails as well. Media investigations show the coronavirus has spread rapidly within the tight confines of many prisons, with The Marshall Project’s projections showing more than 14,000 inmates testing positive for COVID-19 as of April 29.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby told prosecutors in March to dismiss pending drug cases involving possession or distribution for this reason. Mosby also wrote a letter along with 30 prosecutors advocating for measures to decrease the number of incarcerated people in prisons to slow the spread of the coronavirus. She added several decarceral policies her office would personally enact as well.
“As prosecutors, we are committed to protecting the safety and wellbeing of everyone in our community, and that includes people who are currently in prison or jail,” Mosby said in a statement. “I firmly believe that we can promote public health and public safety at the same time, and that’s what these new policies will achieve.”
Sen. Cory Booker commended the action in a video livestream this week, stating that Mosby has “employed incredible tools in this crisis—that I’ve been advocating on a federal level frankly.” Booker last week called for federal legalization amid marijuana businesses being deemed “essential.”