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A Push For Marijuana Decriminalization In Small Town Ohio

Ed McCants gathering signatures for Marion's "Sensible Marijuana Ordinance."
Nick Evans
Ed McCants gathering signatures for Marion's "Sensible Marijuana Ordinance."

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

At one home, a woman reaches for the pen before he finishes the pitch.

"I will sign it right now," she says with a laugh.

At other homes, it's a different story. Next door, a man complains he "reads that in the paper all the time," before closing the door on McCants.

"So that’s probably the most interesting thing, is you’ll get polar opposites right next door,"  McCants says. "How does that even happen?"

McCants is leading the push for Marion’s version of the "Sensible Marijuana Ordinance." The initiative would nix local penalties for possession of less than 200 grams—or nearly a half-pound of pot. Under current state law, that much marijuana could get you a $250 fine and up to a month in jail.

Ed McCant collecting signatures for a marijuana decriminalization petition in Marion.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Ed McCant collecting signatures for a marijuana decriminalization petition in Marion.

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, whose idea is to encourage non-enforcement by dropping the penalties.

"Like jaywalking—similar to jaywalking," Thompson says. "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 its 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," Thompson says, pointing to the greater likelihood for African Americans to face marijuana charges. "Here, in Ohio, it’s four-to-one."

Those figures come from the ACLU's 2013 state-by-state review of marijuana arrests. The study found over 8 million marijuana arrests in the U.S. between 2001-2010, costing about $3.6 billion every year.

Chad Thompson.
Credit Nick Evans
Chad Thompson.

Thompson points out there are implications beyond fines, too. People facing charges could be on the hook for court costs, lose their driver’s license or jeopardize their access to government support.

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, it’s usually a secondary offense," Collins says. "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 local leader, Schertzer says he’s tried to tackle big national problems from city hall.

"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," Schertzer says.

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 Ohio voters rejecting a 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.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.