Marijuana was not always illegal. In fact, at one point, it was embraced–used as a medicine and an herb. However, in 1937, marijuana was criminalized, beginning decades of prohibition in America.
Since then, 23 states, as well as Washington D.C., have fully legalized cannabis for recreational use. Issue 2, the Marijuana Legalization Initiative, will appear on the Ohio ballot Nov. 7. Now, the decision is up to Ohio voters: continue the streak of prohibition or fully legalize cannabis across the state?
“My personal opinions on drugs or anything is not going to matter,” said Nick Magruder, Athens chief of police. “It's how the state allows us to enforce it and it's how the city wants us to enforce it too.”
In 2017, the city of Athens passed an ordinance, removing any monetary penalties for possession of marijuana. In return, law enforcement eased up on pursuing misdemeanor marijuana offenses.
“We’ve only cited people nine times for possession of marijuana since 2017 and three of those were on an OVI (operating a vehicle impaired),” Magruder said.
Lisa Eliason, the Athens City Law Director, is in charge of prosecuting misdemeanor cases within the city of Athens. Eliason argued that not much would change with the passing of Issue 2. She explained that in Athens, residents are seldom charged with marijuana offenses as is.
“As far as our caseload, I don't see that we're going to have a dramatic drop in cases,” Eliason said.
Eliason attributes the low caseload to the elimination of fines in 2017 and the legalization of hemp in 2019. She said that when law enforcement writes a ticket for marijuana, they must do a field test on the substance. The tricky part is it can be nearly impossible to decipher hemp from marijuana.
“Issue 2 can definitely alleviate some of those issues because the state has a hard time processing and testing marijuana,” Magruder said.
Don Wirtshafter, founder and curator of the Cannabis Museum, also agreed that passing Issue 2 would have little to no legal ramifications.
“If people want to smoke marijuana, they smoke marijuana,” Wirtshafer said. “The laws aren't really stopping them.”
Wirtshafter said the legalization of marijuana would promote more employers, employees and economic activity in the state, fostering an economic engine for Ohio.
“People will want to be here because we're not living in the past where you can get busted and lose your house and lose your home, your car and lose your job and freedom over a plant,” Wirtshafter said.
According to Issue 2’s certified language, Issue 2 would, “legalize and regulate the cultivation, processing, sale, purchase, possession, home grow, and use of cannabis by adults at least twenty-one years of age.”
While similar marijuana legalization initiatives have been introduced in the past, none have been successful in Ohio. Many expect that things will change with Issue 2.
“It's something we've seen before in different legislations that hasn't passed, but it seems like this one may have a little bit more steam behind it,” Magruder said.
While Wirtshafter is excited to see the issue on the ballot this November, he also thinks there will be countercampaigns aimed at preventing the bill from passing. He said he is worried politicians will fearmonger in response to the legalization of home growing. Wirtshafter predicts advertisements on radio and television advising voters to vote no on Issue 2.
“I think we're going to have all kinds of scare stories being passed out by our governor over the next couple of months, trying to convince everybody that whole neighborhoods are going to burn down if we allow people to grow plants in their houses, but people already grow all kinds of different plants in their houses,” Wirtshafter said. “This is no different.”
Nonetheless, he remains optimistic.
“I think that Ohio will become a friendlier, more empathetic state if we can get this passed and get over the era of prohibition that has held us back for so long,” he said.