U.S. cities ignoring cannabis crimes to prevent pandemic spread

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America’s relationship to cannabis is changing because of the coronavirus pandemic. Governors openly lament that their state didn’t legalize cannabis, marijuana retail is considered “essential business” and some scientists have suggested CBD could help treat COVID-19.

Now the coronavirus is impacting how cities approach criminal justice. Back in August, Columbus, Ohio announced it would stop prosecuting low-level marijuana offences after state law legalized industrial hemp. 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.

Ohio Attorney General’s Office recently announced it now had equipment to differentiate between hemp and marijuana, which remains illegal for adult use in the state.

In a response, Klein said that Columbus would still decline to pursue misdemeanor cannabis cases despite the advance in testing. He later added that testing was just one reason his office stopped pursuing cannabis offences.

“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, he added.

The coronavirus also played a part. It seems Columbus has no interest in adding non-violent offenders to its prison population. 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 quarters of many prisons, with The Marshall Project’s projections showing more than 14,000 inmates testing positive for COVID-19 as of April 29.

FILE: Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announces that criminal charges will be filed against Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray on May 1, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. / Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images / Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Baltimore City 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 that her office would personally enact as well.

“As prosecutors, we are committed to protecting the safety and well-being 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.”

Senator Cory Booker commended the action in a recent video livestream, stating that Mosby has “employed incredible tools in this crisis — that I’ve been advocating on a federal level, frankly.” Booker has called for federal legalization amid cannabis businesses being deemed “essential.”

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