Voters in the city of Athens are being asked to consider a proposal that would de-penalize misdemeanor marijuana offenses under municipal code, and we urge them to vote yes.

The Athens Cannabis Ordinance (TACO) was proposed last year via initiative petition by a group of residents, but did not make the ballot in November 2016 and is now being put before Athens voters on Nov. 7 as Proposed Ordinance No. 6.

The TACO proposal (which has nothing to do with food) seeks to de-penalize marijuana offenses in the city of Athens by lowering all fines and court costs to zero dollars. The ordinance copies language out of Ohio Revised Code so that it agrees with general state law, but modifies the fine to zero dollars.

It is based on legislation already in place in other Ohio cities including Toledo, Newark, Bellaire, Logan and Roseville.

In Ohio, misdemeanor-level marijuana crimes include possession of under 200 grams of marijuana, under 10 grams of hash, cultivation of under 200 grams of pot, gifts of under 20 grams of pot, and possession and sale of paraphernalia.

As the group advocating the proposal has noted, the Ohio Supreme Court has upheld the home rule power of cities to modify fines for misdemeanors. 

Under the proposal, marijuana would remain illegal, but removing penalties for misdemeanor marijuana crimes would act as a disincentive for law enforcement in pursuing such offenses, the proposal’s supporters argue.

As a city ordinance, if passed, the initiative would apply within city limits, a jurisdiction covered by the Athens Police Department. The Ohio University Police Department has said that its officers write citations under state code, so unless the department opts to change that policy in the event of TACO’s passage, offenses on campus would not be affected by the new law.

While driver’s license suspension for marijuana misdemeanors are no longer mandatory under Ohio law, drug-related convictions do still carry the potential for loss of federal student aid loans.

We praise the Athens Law Director’s Office for its current policy of offering deals to first-time misdemeanor marijuana offenders to plead guilty instead to disorderly conduct in order to avoid the potential loss of student financial assistance.

No college student’s higher education and subsequent career and life path should be put at grave risk because of a misdemeanor marijuana offense. By that token, no Athens resident should be yoked with a criminal record for minor marijuana possession.

The recent decades of demonizing a plant that has been used by human beings for millennia are coming to an end, and for good reason. Next to legal substances such as alcohol, prescription painkillers, tobacco, barbiturates and stimulants, the cannabis plant stands apart as both far less dangerous, both to society and to individuals, and far more versatile and useful.

(In fact, law enforcement people will admit, it is marijuana’s illegal status and subsequent illicit trade that leads to its biggest dangers, most often in the form of squabbles over drug debts.)

As the usefulness of cannabis has become more recognized, the Ohio Legislature itself saw fit last year to enact the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program, where patients can receive permission from a medical doctor to use marijuana if they qualify with one or more of over 20 conditions.

Ohio University is now poised to take advantage of this, having secured a $1.85 million contract with Black Elk Biotech to explore and develop therapeutic treatments from cannabis and other natural products.

It would seem the height of absurdity that while the very home of their higher education capitalizes in the millions on the extraordinary versatility and medical usefulness of this plant, a student should be branded a criminal, stripped of federal financial aid, burdened under the court system, and prevented from future employment opportunities for smoking a joint.

Marijuana laws in America have been absurd for far too long already. On Nov. 7, voters in the city of Athens have an opportunity to make a statement in their own self-governance and say that enough is enough. We urge them to do just that. Vote yes on Issue 6.

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