City lawmakers are looking at effectively decriminalizing some marijuana possession in Louisville, by telling police not to focus on adults who possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
An ordinance filed Wednesday by four Democrats on Louisville Metro Council would create a new city code making “investigation, citations, and arrests” relating to adult possession of a “small amount of marijuana” the lowest law enforcement priority.
It would not change Kentucky criminal law or be binding on the police.
“The idea is pretty straightforward: You don’t want to punish somebody who makes a minor indiscretion … to prevent them from getting a job or advancing in their career or being prejudiced in any other normal way of life,” said Councilman Brandon Coan, D-8th District, who filed the ordinance.
The legislation wouldn’t punish police who investigate, cite or arrest people who fall under the ordinance, but it does make a “strong expression of policy priority,” Coan said.
Making adult marijuana possession the city’s lowest police priority “will reduce expenditures on law enforcement” and means resources could be better spent fighting “serious and violent crimes,” the ordinance says.
It defines adults as 21 years or older and notes that “personal use” could be half an ounce or less of marijuana.
Coan expects the legislation could be heard in committee as early as May 29. His cosponsors are: Councilwomen Jessica Green, D-1st; Barbara Sexton Smith, D-4th; and Cindi Fowler, D-14th.
A spokeswoman for Louisville Metro Police, Jessie Halladay, said in a statement that Chief Steve Conrad has said before “he must follow the laws as written in Kentucky and marijuana remains illegal in this commonwealth.”
“Police are statutorily required to write citations for small amounts of marijuana possession already, unless there is some other circumstance related to public safety,” Halladay wrote. “Our department continues to focus on violent crime as a top priority.”
A request for comment sent to the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office was not immediately returned, but Jean Porter, a spokeswoman for Mayor Greg Fischer, wrote in a statement that “the goal of the (legislation) is already in effect.”
“First, marijuana is still illegal in Kentucky, and the mayor has a constitutional duty to uphold the law,” Porter wrote. “Second, LMPD already prioritizes violent crime, and state law has, since 2011, required police to issue citations instead of arresting individuals for possessing marijuana in low amounts.”
Earlier this year, a Courier Journal investigation found that black drivers in Louisville were cited for possession of marijuana in 2017 at six times the rate of white people, even though national studies show both groups smoke it at virtually the same rate.
African Americans, who make up less than one-fourth of Louisville’s population, accounted for two-thirds of those charged with marijuana possession, according to the Courier Journal analysis of 21,607 cases in which possession of marijuana was the most serious charge.
At the time, Sexton Smith, whose district extends from downtown to West 24th Street, called the disparities “unacceptable for any reason.”
After being presented with the Courier Journal’s findings in January, Fischer called them “troubling” and said at the time he asked Conrad to review the data, policies and procedures to “try to pinpoint ways to address that issue.”
Conrad declined to be interviewed, but Halladay said at the time that LMPD “does not target individuals based on race” and trains officers to overcome biases, but she said the department directs “our resources to places where most crime is being committed.”
“It would be premature to say whether or not any particular policies or procedures might change,” Halladay said in January. “We are bound by the state statutes and have an obligation to enforce the law when violations are discovered.”
Ten states and the District of Columbia have made recreational marijuana legal, while it may be used for medical purposes in those and 23 additional states.
In Kentucky, marijuana possession remains a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 45 days in jail and a $250 fine, though most judges impose only a $50 fine.
The Metro Council ordinance states: “Louisville Metro Public Safety Officials remain committed to working cooperatively with all state and federal agencies in enforcing laws concerning possession of marijuana. This section is not intended to limit the proper enforcement of generally applicable laws, but rather to state the policy of Metro Government.”
It also says the low enforcement priority is regarding only marijuana possession offenses by adults. It does not affect distribution or sale of marijuana; possession of marijuana by minors; driving under the influence; or any offense in conjunction with or related to a threat of violence.
Last year, city lawmakers backed a resolution to urge the Kentucky General Assembly to allow the use of medical marijuana. It also asked federal officials to study using medical marijuana, and that drug laws “should be amended to remove cannabis” as a controlled substance.
This story has been updated.
Reporter Andrew Wolfson contributed to this report.
Darcy Costello: 502-582-4834; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dctello. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/darcyc.