The mayor of Cleveland, Ohio said on Tuesday that the city will be moving forward with plans to seal thousands of marijuana records after a state law took effect empowering localities to process mass relief.
Mayor Justin Bibb (D) said that the implementation of SB 288, which Gov. Mike DeWine (R) signed in January, will allow the city to continue its work to facilitate about 4,000 cannabis expungements on behalf of its citizens.
The now-enacted state bill from Sen. Nathan Manning (R) covered a wide range of issues, including sentencing reform for people in prison and broader criminal records sealing and expungements. But what Bibb aims to do is leverage provisions that let cities expunge certain drug-related convictions, including marijuana possession of up to 200 grams.
Today, Ohio Senate Bill 288 takes effect. The new state law we advocated for alongside State Senator @Manning_Nathan removes legal barriers and allows the City to introduce expungements and seal records on behalf of residents.
— Mayor Justin M. Bibb (@MayorBibb) April 4, 2023
The legislation also protects people from getting criminal records for possessing cannabis paraphernalia.
The mayor sought to provide mass marijuana clemency last year, only to be told by state officials that local government’s don’t have that authority. He then worked with Manning to develop legislation to expand that power.
Bibb also credited President Joe Biden for helping to create a pathway for the state-level reform, noting the president’s decision to issue a mass pardon for people who’ve committed federal cannabis possession offenses and direct an administrative review in marijuana scheduling late last year.
“President Biden’s Marijuana Reform efforts opened the door for us to make pivotal changes in our own policy regarding marijuana,” he said in a press release. “At the end of the day, these policies are about doing right by our citizens and giving them more opportunities to thrive.”
“We will continue to spread the message that the City of Cleveland stands ready to help our citizens make positive steps forward in their lives,” he said.
Cleveland Chief Prosecutor Aqueelah Jordan said that the city will work to independently secure relief for those who might not have the means to do so themselves.
“We understand that citizens don’t always want to engage in the criminal justice system, it’s not always user friendly. And sometimes it’s really hard for citizens to get access,” she said. “We can, as a city, do this on behalf of these residents who have been negatively impacted by historical inequities.”
To make it happen, the city plans to both send people with eligible convictions notices in the mail about the expungement opportunity and also file motions to the courts on its own to provide the relief.
Further, there will be expungement clinics to give citizens resources to get their records sealed, with funding that the city received from the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this year.
But this reform doesn’t just apply to Cleveland. Under the law, county prosecutors and city law directors across the state will now be able to apply for expungements for fourth degree or minor misdemeanor drug offenses on citizens’ behalf.
Also under the legislation, misdemeanor cannabis paraphernalia possession cases would “not constitute a criminal record,” nor would they need to be disclosed “in response to any inquiries about the person’s criminal record.”
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Meanwhile, Ohio lawmakers are on a deadline to consider an activist-led marijuana legalization petition.
Ohio’s secretary of state formally resubmitted the petition to the legislature in early January, giving lawmakers four months to consider the reform. If they don’t act, advocates could then collect additional signatures to place the issue on the November ballot for voters to decide on.
The campaign Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) worked strenuously to put the legalization initiative on the November 2022 ballot, but procedural complications prevented that from happening. Activists turned in enough signatures to initiate the legislative review, but the timing of their initial submission was challenged.
CTRMLA’s lawsuit to force ballot placement was unsuccessful with respect to the 2022 election, but the state agreed to a settlement that meant they will not have to collect another round of initial signatures and that the initiative would be immediately retransmitted to the legislature at the start of the 2023 session.
Last session, a pair of Ohio Democratic lawmakers separately filed a bill to legalize marijuana that directly mirrored the proposed ballot initiative, but it did not advance in time.
A GOP legislator who sponsored a different bill to tax and regulate cannabis has tempered expectations about the chances for legislative reform, signaling that the issue will likely have to be decided by voters.
Ohioans have made clear that they’re ready for a policy change during elections in multiple recent cycles, including this latest one in November where voters in five more cities approved local marijuana decriminalization ballot initiatives.
A poll from last year found that a majority of Ohio voters would support marijuana legalization at the ballot statewide.
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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.