Op-Ed

Stepping away from the failed war on drugs. Will others follow Louisville’s lead?

Senator makes his case for legalizing medical marijuana in Kentucky

State Sen. Dan Seum, R-Fairdale, spoke to the Kentucky Senate about how the state could benefit from legalizing medical marijuana.
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State Sen. Dan Seum, R-Fairdale, spoke to the Kentucky Senate about how the state could benefit from legalizing medical marijuana.

I recently sat in a small, stuffy courtroom in downtown Louisville to hear a major announcement. Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell stood with members of his staff and local civil rights leaders to announce that he would no longer prosecute possession of one ounce of marijuana or less when possession is the only charge or the most serious charge.

He didn’t make his decision lightly. The County Attorney said he deliberated for months. He examined independent research, as well as models from other jurisdictions and their outcomes. He cited studies, including a 2013 ACLU study that found black and white Americans use marijuana at the same rate, but black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites. “For me to truly be a minister of justice, I cannot sit idly by when communities of color are treated differently,” O’Connell said.

County Attorney O’Connell’s action is similar to actions taken in a handful of other states and municipalities. It is an important, small step away from the failed War on Drugs that has over-filled jails and prisons, upended millions of people’s lives, and cost untold billions of dollars. O’Connell’s action is an important admission by a leader in the criminal justice system that charges for simple possession of marijuana disproportionately affect black people. His action shows that we have the power to right past wrongs.

Reaction to the news was immediate on social media, with folks exclaiming, “Finally!” and “It’s about time!” To be clear, this announcement does not mean that marijuana is legal in Jefferson County; decriminalization is not the same as legalization. The new policy also doesn’t apply to people under the age of 21, and does not include cases that involve trafficking, cultivating, or public use, or driving while under the influence of marijuana.

A few from the tough-on-crime crowd were also quick to comment on social media with “do the crime, do the time” rhetoric. One has to wonder whether these folks truly understand the collateral damage a simple possession charge can do to on an individual or a family. These types of “crimes” entangle people in the maze of the criminal justice system, with few pathways out. Time spent dealing with charges can be time away from work earning money. Money for fines, fees, and court costs is money diverted from rent, bills, and groceries. A simple possession charge on a background check could limit job, housing, and educational opportunities. The consequences of charges like this are the reason the County Attorney highlighted a state statute last amended in 2012. For now, this statute, KRS 218A.276 allows an individual to have simple possession marijuana charges voided from their record, at potentially no cost, after 60 days, at the discretion of the court.

Counties across the Commonwealth are grappling with overwhelming court dockets, grotesquely overcrowded jails in which people are dying, and probation officers with outsized caseloads. Basic reform of how marijuana cases are handled will free-up some of our limited resources to address our most pressing public safety issues. I know it’s hard for many to admit any great ideas come out of Louisville, but I’m hoping, in this case, some other brave county attorneys will step up and choose to act.

Amber G. Duke is Communications Director at the ACLU of Kentucky.

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