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A person rolls a joint outside of Seigfred Hall. Various groups in and around Athens are working to decriminalize marijuana in Ohio. (FILE)

Officials worry marijuana ordinance will increase citations

Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said his department averages five to 10 marijuana citations a year, but he expects that number to increase after the recent passage of the marijuana depenalization ordinance.

The Athens Cannabis Ordinance, or TACO, set the fines and fees for misdemeanor marijuana citations to $0. The ordinance passed with 77 percent of the vote during the November election, and went into effect Sunday, five days after the Athens County Board of Elections certified the election results. 

Supporters of the ordinance said it would decrease citations by removing the incentive for local police to enforce marijuana laws. Pyle disagrees. He thinks students will smoke more marijuana under the false belief that the new ordinance legalized weed, and that they will argue when his officers tell them to stop.

“I think a lot more people will be smoking marijuana in open public places, expecting that it’s legal,” Pyle said. “And when our officers confront them and say, ‘You can’t do that here,’ I think they’re going to get arguments: ‘Oh yes it is (legal), TACO,’ and our officers are going to be forced to cite them.”

Marijuana enforcement has not been a priority for APD, and individual officers have discretion to decide whether to cite people they find in violation of marijuana laws. Pyle has said that officers’ decisions to cite or not to cite often rest on the behavior of the people they encounter. If the ordinance causes more residents to argue with officers, it therefore might increase citations.

Pyle doesn’t plan to ask officers to stop enforcing marijuana laws.

“It’s still illegal,” he said.

Although misdemeanor marijuana citations won’t result in fines anymore, they could still come with consequences. Students convicted of drug offenses, including misdemeanor marijuana offenses, could risk losing their federal financial aid.

The Athens Law Department has a standing plea deal with students to amend minor misdemeanor marijuana offenses to minor misdemeanor disorderly conduct so students don’t risk losing financial aid. That plea deal comes with a $50 fine and court costs, according to a previous Post report.

APD still has the option to issue marijuana citations under the Ohio Revised Code. Under the Ohio Revised Code, possessing marijuana paraphernalia or fewer than 100 grams of marijuana is a minor misdemeanor that carries a maximum fine of $150. Possessing at least 100 grams but less than 200 grams is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $250.

The department has chosen in other scenarios to cite under Ohio code instead of local ordinances. Pyle said APD has cited intoxicated drivers under Ohio law instead of city law for years because the penalties under Ohio and Athens law were different. 

“It’s always been the case where we could cite under the state section, and in most cases that’s what we’ve always done,” he said.

APD and the Athens Law Department will meet to discuss more specific policy options for APD. Athens City Law Director Lisa Eliason said that has not yet happened because the ordinance only recently went into effect.

“It’s all still pretty new,” Eliason said. 

Ohio University police officers will continue to cite people under Ohio law.

“We are continuing to review the city’s new ordinance and relevant case law, but unless and until we receive legal guidance otherwise, we will continue to cite under state law for violations on state property,” OUPD Lt. Tim Ryan said in an email.


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