Photo Caption: An individual who has withheld his name smokes a marijuana “cross joint” in Athens last August.
With marijuana laws changing in some parts of the country, local law enforcers are taking a more or less neutral attitude on whether Ohio should follow suit and loosen up pot regulation. Unless and until it does, they say, it will be business as usual.
On Election Day, Colorado and Washington became the first two in these United States of America to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to legalize medical marijuana.
Ohio is not among them.
In the Buckeye State, possession of under 100 grams of marijuana – about three and a half ounces – is a minor misdemeanor, on par with getting an expensive traffic ticket. In July, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed Senate Bill 337, which decriminalized possession of most marijuana paraphernalia.
That legislation lowered paraphernalia possession from a fourth-degree misdemeanor – an arrestable offense that could carry a sentence of up to 30 days in jail – to a minor misdemeanor on a par with possession. That bill was slated to go into effect Sept. 28.
Nevertheless, marijuana of any kind remains criminalized in the state of Ohio and local law enforcement still deals with these types of offenses on a frequent and regular basis.
There are several organizations in the state pushing for various ballot initiatives that would decriminalize marijuana or make medical marijuana in Ohio regulated and legal.
The Ohio Medical Cannabis Association had been attempting to get the Ohio Medical Cannabis Amendment on the 2012 ballot but is now shooting for 2014.
According to the OMCA, "polls show that about three in four Ohioans already support medical cannabis."
Furthermore, the organization points out, every state bordering Ohio already has a medical cannabis law or has one currently under consideration in the legislature.
"(Ninety) million Americans already have this right and Ohioans should too," the association posits.
Local law enforcement administrators said in interviews on the matter that regardless of whether drug laws are changed in the future, their duty is to enforce the laws as they are now.
Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said Tuesday that the city sees an average of 200 or so drug cases each year. The largest number of those cases involve possession of marijuana, he added.
"Our 'main' focus in policing drug law is on the dealers," he said. "Most of the minor cases that are charged out start out on something other than a drug focus. What I mean is someone is arrested for a non-related crime and is found in possession."
Pyle pointed out that most of the "major" drug crime enforcement and investigation his department performs flies under the radar and that this is intentional.
"We find it works better for us in accomplishing what we feel we need to accomplish by being rather clandestine," he said. "Time and effort are insignificant compared to the plight drug abuse creates for the community so it is important to enforce the laws as written."
Pyle said he has no opinion on whether to change current law, and that his department will enforce whatever laws are on the books.
"If they change, we will change to adapt to the will of the people. That is how it is supposed to work," he said. "I will say this, I believe the argument that marijuana is not a gateway drug is hollow at best. In my mind, it depends on the person, not the drug."
The Athens County Sheriff's Office has been highly focused on the plight of drugs in the area. Sheriff Pat Kelly expressed some of his feelings on the subject in a statement on his official Facebook page on March 28 of this year.
In that post, Kelly slammed those who would use calls for legalization of marijuana to advocate for the legalization of far more dangerous hard drugs.
Kelly wrote that, "marijuana has always been used as a mirrored catalyst by those that support the hard drug culture to garner support and is effectively accomplished to muddy the issue at hand."
"I will be the first to admit, and while by no means advocating the use or legalization of marijuana, I have never seen anyone die of an overdose on marijuana," he wrote. "While marijuana may be illegal, the marijuana culture has a segment of community support."
He said that many supporters of the marijuana movement support the efforts of his office in the fight against hard drug dealers.
"Over the past three years our Narcotic Enforcement Team has made great strides in removing many heroin dealers and dealers of hard drugs off our streets and the loss of lives have been reduced dramatically," he wrote. "I have heard many say that the war on drugs is a failure. I disagree. I believe society is the failure for not recognizing the addiction that has destroyed so many lives. We still have a long way to go."
Ohio University Police Chief Andrew Powers said Wednesday that oftentimes on campus the odor of marijuana will serve as probable cause, and a subsequent search will turn up harder and more dangerous drugs.
"A lot of times marijuana accompanies other types of more serious drug abuse," he said. "It may be an odor of marijuana that draws the attention of the (dormitory resident assistant) and ends up in the police responding. But in responding to it we end up finding – sometimes but not always – more serious offenses."
Powers also said his department's duty is to enforce the laws that are on the books. He said if the citizens of the state change those laws, then his department will likewise abide by those changes.
Since Jan. 1 of this year, the OUPD has filed 95 paraphernalia incidents and 121 marijuana possession incidents.