COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is ready to start testing cannabis plants and oils in drug cases, thanks to new equipment that will help technicians distinguish between hemp and marijuana.
For the past nine months suspected illegal marijuana cases weren’t prosecuted in numerous cities across the state — such as Columbus and Hunting Valley in Northeast Ohio — because the Ohio General Assembly legalized hemp and there were no public crime labs in the state that had the testing ability to distinguish between the two plants, which are part of the same cannabis genus.
But that has changed, said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who oversees BCI and its crime lab.
“BCI’s new ability to differentiate between marijuana and hemp creates a valuable resource for officers who depend on our laboratory services, offered at no cost to them,” Yost said in a statement.
Under Ohio’s new hemp law, which went into effect July 30, hemp can have only trace amounts — no more than 0.3% — of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that produces the “high.” Anything above that is illegal in Ohio unless part of the state-regulated medical marijuana program.
Before the new equipment, cannabis was identified through chemical color testing and microscopic examination, said Steve Irwin, a BCI spokesman.
“We’ve got the staff and equipment in place to continue to process the cases,” he said. “It’s just a different process.”
Although numerous cities and courts dropped marijuana prosecutions after the hemp law went into effect, some still did continue to pursue the cases by sending evidence to private labs.
Yost’s office provided law enforcement agencies $3,972 in grant funding to test samples in eight cases tied to over 20 felony charges.
The state provided $968,602 for drug testing equipment. To date, $700,000 has been spent on the instruments necessary to conduct quantitative analysis, Irwin said. The remaining money will be used for additional drug testing equipment.
“BCI did significant research on instruments and methodology, including on other states (that test for THC levels), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, cannabis labs, and various vendors,” Irwin said.
Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein is not changing his policy to not pursue low-level marijuana cases, he said Thursday.
“Our decision to stop prosecuting low-level, misdemeanor marijuana possession was based on many factors, including the lack of testing capabilities at the time, our city council’s decision to institute a low-dollar fine for violations, and overall disparities and inequities in the criminal justice system,” he said. “If anything, in light of the spread of the coronavirus in our jail and prison system, we believe our policy reflects a real-world approach that focuses on incarceration for only those that should be behind bars.”
Other Ohio prosecutors feel differently, saying such testing is necessary to keep the state safe.
“Since the legalization of hemp last summer, law enforcement has struggled to enforce Ohio marijuana laws due to an inability to distinguish between marijuana and hemp,” said Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, in the statement. “Expensive private testing was often the only solution.”
Next, the state crime lab will work on testing for marijuana edibles, which Irwin said is more complicated since there are so many products.