On Sunday, May 6, 2012, Vice President Joe Biden went on “Meet the Press” and declared he believed same-sex marriage should be legal. “What this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love,” he said.
At the time, only six states recognized gay marriage. And President Obama, Biden’s boss, up for re-election in six months, had remained on the politically safe middle ground on the issue up until then.
But, by Wednesday of the following week, Obama said in an interview: “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
From that moment on, a cascade of public support and events led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges, when the high court ruled that same-sex couples have an equal right to marriage.
Same-sex marriage equality was the landmark civil rights achievement of a generation. All it took was one act of political courage, candor, honesty — some insisted that it was a Biden gaffe — to set the wheels of societal change in motion.
Criminal justice might be the civil rights issue of the next generation, and Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell may have finally brought the fight to Louisville and Kentucky with one courageous decision last week.
O’Connell announced that his office will no longer prosecute cases against people charged with possession of marijuana up to 1 ounce, when that would be the primary charge. Prosecutors will also dismiss charges for drug paraphernalia when it’s clearly only used for marijuana, and the new policy takes effect immediately, including cases currently pending.
Certainly, O’Connell can see the trend in public support for marijuana, as well as the decriminalization and legalization in other states. Cincinnati recently decriminalized 3.5 ounces in June.
And, this follows an ordinance passed by the Louisville Metro Council that made a half-ounce possession of marijuana the lowest priority for Louisville law enforcement.
O’Connell’s decision was not based on calls for legalization of pot for medical needs or to reap its economic benefits. For O’Connell, this decision was about using the powers of his elected office to fix the inequities and injustices crippling the community he serves.
“For me to truly be a minister of justice, I cannot sit idly by when communities of color are treated differently,” he said during his announcement last week.
O’Connell pointed to a Courier Journal investigation that revealed startling racial biases in how marijuana was being prosecuted in Louisville: In 2017, black people accounted for two-thirds of marijuana possession cases, and black drivers were being cited for possession six times more than were white people… while national studies show that both smoke/use weed at approximately the same rate.
The new policy only applies to those 21 or older; the possession of one ounce of weed must be the primary charge (no other illicit drugs or illegal weapons, etc.). Meanwhile, people will still be charged for driving under the influence, public intoxication, trafficking and growing weed.
One ounce may not sound like a lot — since I am now measuring baby food about 3 ounces at a time, 1 ounce sounds like nothing. So, I consulted with a friend who has more knowledge on this subject. They told me that an ounce is a good amount — about a sandwich-size plastic bag. For them, an ounce is probably a month’s supply and goes for about $150 for average quality weed, while an ounce of better, more potent weed can go for $250 and up.
So this decision by O’Connell applies to recreational consumers… but not dangerous criminals, traffickers or minors. And the police still have the authority to confiscate the weed. O’Connell’s move prevents people from getting unwarranted criminal records.
Leaders from the Kentucky NAACP, Louisville Urban League and American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky joined O’Connell at his announcement to show their support for the new policy.
The Jefferson County Attorney can’t legalize marijuana even if he wanted to, just like the vice president couldn’t legalize same-sex marriage. But, that didn’t stop Biden or O’Connell from being leaders.
Now it’s time for others to follow. •