Did Ohio Accidentally Legalize Cannabis? (Sort Of, But No)

Weed's still illegal, but it can't be identified.

Ohio State House iStock / aceshot

A new bill signed into Ohio State law may have decriminalized cannabis in the state, or just offered a limited-time get out of jail card.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 57 into law on July 30, legalizing hemp in the state, giving farmers a new revenue stream with the new crop. The law specifically changes the definition of marijuana to exclude hemp, based on the amount of THC — the chemical that gets you high, saying a THC level of .3 percent or less is hemp and legal. A THC level over .3 percent is marijuana and is still illegal in Ohio.

“Now we have to be able to distinguish the difference between hemp and marijuana,” Jason Pappas, Vice President of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, told WBNS-10TV, a Columbus TV news network. “That is not possible for a human being to do, that has to be done through crime analysis.”

With the new change in law, the police were saddled with an impossible task and a heavy workload, something top law enforcement officials say is a waste of time.

Is Cannabis Legal In Ohio?

medical marijuana farm

iStock / Arina_Bogachyova

The short answer: no.

Cannabis is still deemed an illegal substance under the law, but due to complications surrounding the passing of SB 57, low-level marijuana possession is all but cleared in the state.

This change has led Columbus, one of the state’s largest cities and its capital, into dropping all misdemeanor cases for cannabis possession and refusing to take any more.

This wide-sweeping change comes from a technological barrier that comes during the due process, with the state crime labs not being able to tell how much THC is in any tested material. Since legal hemp is defined as .3 percent or less THC, legal hemp still has THC in it.

Because the tools and tech available can only tell if there is THC present, not how much, not only does it throw a wrench into any possession cases being prosecuted, but pretty much guarantees that marijuana is nearly decriminalized.

“The reality is, we have no practical way of testing. The Ohio legislature and governor signed a law into effect that has created a barrier, a technological barrier, that now prohibits us from prosecuting these cases,” Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein told WBNS-10TV.

“We cannot prove those beyond a reasonable doubt because we cannot make the distinction whether it is hemp or whether it is marijuana,” Klein continued. “So, just from a practical standpoint, because we can no longer prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, we’re no longer going to be prosecuting these cases because we do not have the resources to do so.”

This barrier is the main reason behind the suspension of marijuana cases, however, the change is not permanent and money is being given to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BCI) crime lab to make a device that can tell how much THC is in a tested material.

The implications, still, are state-wide, with the Ohio Attorney General Office sending a release stating: “BCI is in early… stages of validating… methods to meet this new legal requirement,  (which) may take several months.”

Going forward the state is recommending prosecutors, “suspend identification of marijuana testing… in your local jurisdiction by law enforcement personnel previously trained,” and, “do not indict any cannabis-related items” a proper tool that can detect THC is made.

Temporary De Facto Legalization

Evidence bag, Police scientific laboratory, conceptual image, horizontal composition

iStock / digicomphoto

The effects of SB 57 were warned throughout the bill’s journey into law, however, many, including the Ohio Governor, ignored it, with the Governor’s Office later saying that is why they implemented more money into the crime labs with the bill.

Louis Tobin, the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association echoed that while only temporary, Ohio has a version of legal cannabis.

“This bill de facto legalizes marijuana in Ohio… at least for a time,” Tobin told Newsweek. “We raised this concern with legislators during debate of this bill. It’s disappointing those concerns were rejected.”

Still, not all in the state are happy, as the Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said this about Klein’s announcement to WBNS-10TV.

“BCI will soon be able to provide the necessary lab analysis – and when that functionality is online, I hope the city attorney will revisit this decision. It’s unfortunate that Columbus has decided to create an island within Franklin County where the general laws of the State of Ohio no longer apply. Equal application of the law to all citizens is a fundamental tenant of our Constitutional system. I oppose any effort to create ‘drug safe zones’ based on area codes and municipal boundaries,” said Yost.

While the air around marijuana may still be a bit hostile, the penalties for such are not as severe. 

On July 22, the Columbus City Council passed legislation to reduce penalties for possessing marijuana, with offenders with up to 100 grams would be fined $10 and those caught with 100 to 200 grams would pay $25.

Unlike state law, possession of up to 200 grams will not lead to possible jail time.

One of the most lenient laws for a still illegal state in the country.

What’s next for weed in Ohio?

Despite a string of funding for marijuana research, it seems that the chop is coming for marijuana in Ohio.

Ohio, which is a purple state politically, has strong pulls to both sides of the aisle, but when the time comes for a device that can tell how much THC is in something, the newfound decriminalized pleasures may be quickly out the door.

So while it’s unlikely that things will stay as they are, a pro-legalization governor and a new system in the works may not be the worst of days to come.

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