Local races across the country will be decided in next month's elections, and marijuana policy is popping up in some of them. In Cincinnati, pot policy is part of a mayoral campaign, while in Utica County, New York, which includes the towns of Woodstock and New Paltz, a candidate for district attorney is taking flak over an apparent pro-marijuana legalization stance.
In the Utica County DA race, Democratic contender and assistant Ulster County public defender Jonathan Sennett is taking flak for reportedly twice saying marijuana should be legalized and once saying it should be decriminalized during campaign events.
"The scientific evidence is pretty solid that marijuana is not more harmful than alcohol or tobacco," he said in an interview with the Daily Freeman. "I don't believe that a substance should be determined to be legal or illegal in inverse proportion to its lobbying effort. We don't prosecute people as felons for selling alcohol to kids," Sennett said.
While Sennett didn't use the L-word in that interview, his opponents, Republican Holley Carnright of Saugerties and Conservative/Independent Vincent Bradley Jr. of Kingston, say they heard Sennett call for legalization twice -- once in a public access interview program in Woodstock and once at a joint appearance earlier this month before the Ulster County Police Chiefs Association at the Ulster County Law Enforcement Center.
The pair of self-confessed drug warriors were quick to pounce. "I don't understand what (Sennett) means by 'decriminalization.' You can't get less than a violation. It's equivalent to an appearance ticket for jaywalking," said Bradley, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney.
"He can dance all around it and blow smoke, but I think his message is clear, intended or not, that he doesn't think marijuana is any worse than tobacco. It is totally inappropriate for a DA to say that," said Carnright, a former chief assistant district attorney for Ulster County. "I think it's a bad idea. You can't be the DA and send out that kind of message. The message, especially to kids, is (marijuana) is bad for you. Any other message is inappropriate."
Meanwhile, in the Cincinnati mayor's race, the council's passage last year of an ordinance criminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana is on voters' minds. In Ohio, possession of up to four ounces is decriminalized under state law, but Cincinnati council members approved the local ordinance as an anti-crime measure. The candidates were quick to stake out their ground.
"In March of this year I, along with Vice Mayor Tarbell, cast the two lone votes against an ordinance that criminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana... The reality is that many of them are let out of prison early because of a shortage of jail space. Given this problem it makes little sense to me to pass a law... which inevitably will crowd our jails with nonviolent offenders," said Democratic contender David Crowley.
Crowley was joined by one Republican candidate and independent candidate Justin Jeffre in vowing to overturn the measure, but another Republican candidate thought it had worked just fine. "The Marijuana Ordinance has been highly successful over the past 15 months. During this time, the police, using the ordinance, have been able to confiscate over 100 illegal guns and millions of dollars of illegal drugs such as cocaine, crack, heroin and methamphetamine," said Leslie Ghiz.
"Someone asked if (we) would have the 'spine' to repeal the ordinance," retorted Jeffre. "I have vowed to work in conjunction with Vice Mayor Crowley and Councilmember Qualls to do exactly that... Ghiz quotes a bunch of numbers out of context to scare voters into thinking this law does anyone any good... Ghiz says the law targets not recreational smokers, but dealers. Can we really believe that all these thousands upon thousands of people were dealers?"
"Whether you believe in smoking marijuana or not, this is just simply bad legislation which will have the foreseeable consequences of bogging down the court system and using up jail space that should be reserved for violent criminals," agreed Republican candidate Charlie Winburn. "I am not yet certain this is going to make our city safer, but I do know that council has no leadership agenda for reducing violent crime in Cincinnati."
It will be November before we know if candidates with progressive positions on marijuana policy have been helped or hindered by their stands. In Utica County, drug warriors are doubling up on the reformer, but we'll have to see if voters agree. In Cincinnati, three out of four council candidates want to undo the marijuana ordinance, and again, we'll have to see. But at least these days, the campaign discussions about marijuana policy are no longer one-sided.