A Push for Marijuana Decriminalization in Small Town Ohio

Jul 9, 2019

In cities across Ohio, organizers are going to the ballot box to push local governments away from low-level marijuana enforcement. The state’s penalties for possession are already relatively loose. But initiative backers say the drug convictions aren’t making communities safer, and they’re unnecessarily harmful to those who get caught. If passed, the proposals will likely prompt a court fight where similar measures have recently been struck down.

In Marion, Ed McCants is making the rounds, walking door-to-door with a clipboard collecting signatures for a local marijuana initiative. He says the responses are hot and cold.

“Hello my name is Ed McCants, I actually have a petition to decriminalize marijuana —"

“I will sign it right now.”

Some residents reach for a pen before he even finishes the pitch. Others — not so much.

“Hello sir, my name is Ed McCants, I actually have a petition here to decriminalize marijuana.”

“I read that in the paper all time. [door closing]”

“Ok, thank you.  And cold.  So that’s probably the most interesting thing is you’ll get polar opposites right next door. How does that even happen?”

McCants is leading the push for Marion’s version of the “Sensible Marijuana Ordinance.” It’s an initiative which would nix local penalties for possession of less than 200 grams, or nearly a half-pound of pot.

Ed McCant collecting signatures for a marijuana decriminalization petition in Marion.
Credit NICK EVANS / WOSU

Under current state law, that much marijuana could get you a $250 fine and up to a month in jail. Organizers in another 20 cities and villages around the state are gathering signatures for local ballot measures of their own. It’s a strategy pioneered by Chad Thompson in Toledo. His idea is to encourage non-enforcement by dropping the penalties.

“Like jaywalking — similar to jaywalking. It’s illegal but people jaywalk all the time. It’s something that’s commonly overlooked, and when you have an ordinance that gives no fine, no jail time, no court costs, that’s what we see happening — is it pushes a culture of non-enforcement.”

Toledo’s initiative passed in 2015 with the support of slightly more than 70% of voters. There’s just one problem: the courts. A Lucas County Judge ruled the city couldn’t change felonies to misdemeanors, zero out penalties or keep police officers from referring cases under state law. That hasn’t stopped Cincinnati’s city council from zeroing out fines for possession of 100 grams or less — Cleveland and Columbus leaders are planning similar measures of their own.

“All of the motivation that I’m hearing that’s driving that is that racial disparity in charges — here, in Ohio, it’s four to one.”

Those figures come from a 2013 state-by-state ALCU review of marijuana arrests. Thompson points out there are implications beyond fines. People facing charges could be on the hook for court costs, lose their license or jeopardize their access to government support.

Chad Thompson.Credit NICK EVANS / WOSUEdit | Remove

Marion Police Chief Bill Collins believes decriminalization sends the wrong message, and he says his officers really aren’t prioritizing low-level offenders.

“Mostly when an arrest happens here in Marion and someone gets charged with marijuana its usually a secondary offense so either they’ve been arrested for domestic violence or assault or drunk and disorderly and when you pat them down to take them to jail or search them maybe you find some marijuana. Many times they don’t even end up getting charged with that marijuana when it’s a small amount.”

Mayor Scott Schertzer also questions the approach. As a city leader, Schertzer says he’s tried to solve national problems at the local level.

“I often tell people whether it’s the housing crisis, whether it’s the opioid epidemic, it is very difficult if not nearly impossible to solve a national crisis at the local level.”

But organizers see it differently. To get on the ballot in Marion, organizers need to gather about 800 valid petition signatures. It’s a far cry from the 430,000 signatures needed to make the statewide ballot.

That’s the opportunity supporters like Thompson and McCants are focused on. They think the tide is turning in their favor, despite a failed 2015 ballot measure for recreational pot. They believe convincing wins in November, even if they’re blocked in court, might encourage police departments or even state lawmakers to reconsider their stance on marijuana.