New law expected to curb pot possession citations

By J Swygart -

LIMA — A new state law decriminalizing hemp has forced counties and municipalities to rethink how they will enforce Ohio’s marijuana possession laws.

At issue is the state’s current inability to perform lab tests that differentiate between hemp — the possession of which is now legal — and marijuana. Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein summed up the dilemma in a press release earlier this week.

“The passage of Senate Bill 57 requires a distinction between hemp and marijuana, but our current drug testing technology is not able to differentiate, so we will not have the evidence required to prosecute these cases,” Klein said.

He said the city’s attorney’s office “will no longer be prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana possession cases, and we are dismissing any current pending misdemeanor marijuana possession charges.”

Other communities, including Lima, are following suit.

In the wake of the state’s adoption of S.B. 57, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sent a letter to county prosecutors statewide that contained recommendations from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation Laboratory on how to proceed in the short-term future.

Yost’s letter urged prosecutors to “suspend any identification of marihuana testing performed in your local jurisdiction by law enforcement personnel previously trained. The traditional marihuana identification testing methods do not quantify THC content” spelled out in the new law.

Yost on Tuesday also announced a program he said will assist police in enforcing state marijuana possession laws currently on the books.

“Just because the law changed, it doesn’t mean the bad guys get a ‘get of out of jail free’ card,” Yost said. “We are equipping law enforcement with the resources to do their jobs.”

Yost announced the creation of a Major Marijuana Trafficking Grant Program to assist law enforcement in differentiating between hemp and marijuana. The grant program will provide $50,000 in funding for law enforcement agencies to have large quantities of marijuana tested in accredited laboratories that have the capabilities to quantify THC levels.

Lima City Law Director Tony Geiger said new equipment to adequately test for marijuana “is likely months and months away, and when it’s here you’re going to have to stand in line” to get tests performed.

In the interim, Geiger said the city will look at minor misdemeanor marijuana possession cases — legally defined as less than 200 grams — on a case-by-case basis.

“I do anticipate a significant number of dismissals of cases that are already in the system, as well as any new ones,” Geiger said earlier this week.

Geiger said police who may encounter a person with a small amount of marijuana in their possession “will have to decide if they have sufficient other evidence (besides the current methods of testing) that it’s marijuana.”

With the passage of Senate Bill 57, Geiger said all communities in the Buckeye State have been left to figure out how to proceed going forward.

“Everybody is in the same boat,” he said.

Allen County Prosecuting Attorney Juergen Waldick said his office is currently “trying to find a lab” to do the kind of testing that differentiates hemp from marijuana.

Asked how the change in state law will affect local law enforcement efforts, Waldick said he had not directed the sheriff’s office to halt arrests for marijuana possession.

“I’m not going to tell them not to make arrests, especially if we’re talking about large amounts (of marijuana),” the prosecutor said. “At the same time, I don’t think it’s economically feasible when it comes to minor misdemeanor arrests. But if we’re talking large amounts, we’re going to find a lab to test it.”

He said Lima city officials will be the ones to establish a policy when it comes to what types of cases will be prosecuted in Lima Municipal Court.

Geiger said the penalty for minor possession of marijuana currently is treated similar to that of a traffic ticket in Lima, with a maximum fine of $150. The law director said the change in the way low-level pot possession cases are prosecuted will probably not have a significant effect on revenues at Lima Municipal Court, it “could diminish the number of cases that are filed.”

“The criminal justice system is not a money-making operation,” Waldick noted.

Van Wert Law Director John Hatcher predicted that the new state law could result in a reduction of cases seen in municipal court, and could lead to a decline in revenues realized by the court.

But for the time being, no citations for low-level pot possession will be issued by city police.

“The City of Van Wert’s position is, because we don’t have a kit test that gives you a certain percentage of THC amount in whatever your testing, the city is no longer going to be writing citations for possession of minor misdemeanor amounts of marijuana. We will confiscate whatever (is seized) as contraband, but that’s it … at least for the short term.

“Obviously if something comes up, either new testing or some other issue involving this new hemp law, we could obviously revisit the issue at that time,” Hatcher said.

By J Swygart

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