Dayton has seen a large reduction in minor marijuana possession charges since city leaders modified city code nearly five years ago to remove the penalties and court costs for violations.
But hundreds of people were still cited in Dayton last year for having relatively small amounts of marijuana, and some community members wrongly believe that cannabis is legal in the city when it is not and the offenses still carry consequences.
Marijuana could become legal in Ohio if voters approve Issue 2 in November, and some local officials hope the measure will pass because they think possessing and using marijuana should not be a crime at all, and especially not one that shows up on people’s records and background checks.
“I support the full legalization of marijuana in Ohio. It is ludicrous that marijuana is still illegal in Ohio,” said Marty Gehres, clerk of the Dayton Municipal Court. “Ohio and our communities should not waste any law enforcement or other governmental resources on policing marijuana. It is clearly time for the state of Ohio to evolve its outdated laws concerning marijuana.”
Critics of Issue 2 have said that marijuana legalization is a a bad idea and sends the harmful message that drugs are safe and OK.
“Legalized marijuana is dangerous for public safety,” said Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “The proponents of this argue that legalization is safer than what we have now because it will be highly regulated but they fail to address the fact that in states like California the black market is strangling the legal marijuana market.”
Dayton changes pot laws
Ohio voters on Nov. 7 will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. Twenty-three other U.S. states already have legalized marijuana for adult possession and consumption, including the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and New York.
Five years ago, on Nov. 6, 2018, nearly three-fourths of Dayton voters cast a “yes” vote for Issue 8, which was an advisory referendum.
The ballot measure asked residents if they wanted city leaders to get rid of the penalties for minor misdemeanor marijuana and hashish possession.
The citizens of Dayton overwhelming cast their votes in favor of “decriminalizing” misdemeanor marijuana offenses, said Gehres, who in 2019 was an assistant city attorney who helped craft the language that changed city code.
“This outcome, along with others around the country, has made it clear that public opinion of surrounding marijuana has radically changed,” Gehres recently told the Dayton Daily News. “It is time for all levels of government to acknowledge this and take steps to legalize marijuana.”
The city commission in January 2019 modified city statute so that the punishment for minor misdemeanor marijuana and hashish possession was a zero dollar fine and suspended court costs.
Possession of 100 grams or marijuana or less is a minor misdemeanor offense in Dayton and Ohio.
Gehres said he believes the legal changes were intended to make it clear that the city did not want the Dayton Police Department to prioritize enforcement of misdemeanor marijuana offenses.
After the city’s marijuana laws changed, minor pot violations plunged.
Dayton police cited about 338 people for minor misdemeanor marijuana possession in 2022, according to Dayton Municipal Court data.
That’s down from about 870 citations in 2017 and 928 in 2018.
Dayton police officers issued 313 citations for minor pot offenses in 2019 and 257 in 2020.
Citations rebounded in 2021, increasing nearly 90% to 487, before falling again in 2022.
COVID likely impacted the numbers in 2020, during lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
Dayton Mayor Jeffrey Mims Jr. said he’s glad to see that the number of citations has been more than cut in half since the city revised its marijuana laws.
The mayor said he thinks removing the penalties for minor pot possession frees up police officers to focus on more serious crimes.
“The commissioners who were involved five years ago made that decision and it’s proven to be a good decision,” he said.
Mims also said cannabis laws have disproportionately hurt communities of color, because minorities are more likely to be cited and arrested for these types of offenses.
Last year, about 85% of the people cited by Dayton police for minor pot possession were Black, according to municipal court data.
People who have a marijuana conviction on their record may be disqualified from obtaining some types of employment, public housing, financial aid and there can be other potential lifelong consequences.
“It is a game-changer, as far as their lives are concerned,” Mims said.
“Decriminalization” vs. legalization
Minor marijuana and hashish possession are still violations of city code, and Dayton police policy says that officers have discretion when it comes to minor offenses.
Dayton officers can issue warnings instead of citing people for minor infractions, but marijuana is still contraband and needs to be confiscated and destroyed, says a general order from the police department.
Dayton commission members and other people who supported reforming Dayton’s marijuana laws often have described the removal of penalties as marijuana “decriminalization.”
But the use of that term has caused some confusion, and some people do not seem to understand that marijuana remains illegal in Dayton, even under city code, said Andrew Sexton, general counsel for the Dayton Police Department.
“Until the state legalizes recreational marijuana use, it is illegal to possess,” he said. “We have not decriminalized marijuana in Dayton — we’ve reduced the penalties.”
Sexton said misunderstandings about what the law actual states can lead to arguments and conflict between police officers and community members, who wrongly think they are allowed to possess and use the drug.
Police policy says officers can use minor marijuana possession charges to help further investigations that may lead to the discovery of more serious criminal offenses, Sexton said.
Some people who possess minor misdemeanor levels of marijuana (100 grams or less) may be trafficking drugs, and citing the suspects can be key part of a criminal probe, he said.
“It could be a very important part of the case, because you have to have possession to have trafficking,” he said.
Dayton police also still have the ability to charge people caught with pot in the city under state statute, which was not impacted by the city’s decision to amend its marijuana laws.
Dayton police often choose whether to file charges under city or state code based on where the fines go and what jurisdiction is going to pay for incarceration, Sexton said.
Dayton pays jail costs for people cited under city code, he said, while the state pays for violations charged under state code.
From 2020 to 2022, about 93% of the people who were cited for minor pot possession by Dayton police were charged under Ohio Revised Code, according to Dayton Municipal Court data.
The city’s prosecutor’s office usually amends citations filed under state code to the city code, unless the suspect wants to go to trial, Sexton said.
“If someone comes in with a state code citation, and they want to resolve it, we are to amend that charge to the city code,” he said.
Sexton also said the decrease in citations shows there has been a significant shift in how the police department handles enforcement of marijuana laws.
Five years ago, some Dayton leaders said they would have legalized marijuana if they had the power to do it. In November, Ohio voters will get a chance to do exactly that.
Mayor Mims said it seems like the benefits of legalizing marijuana may outweigh the downsides, but he said he’s eager to see what the people of Dayton and Ohio think about legalization when they head to the polls in November.
Mims said marijuana has medicinal and health benefits, which may make it a good alternative to alcohol for some people.
Montgomery County Public Defender Theresa Haire said she supports marijuana legalization to the extent that it would end confusion about local pot laws and hopefully it would free up law enforcement resources for better purposes.
Haire said Dayton’s decision to remove penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana has benefited local citizens.
Prior to the legal change, people caught with marijuana faced financial penalties, and those were hardships for people with limited incomes, she said.
“We as an office are never disappointed to see fewer of our citizens charged criminally, and I think the decrease in number of charges you cite aligns with the changes in the law,” Haire said. “If the concern is actually helping people stop using substances to which they may become addicted, then focusing our city’s resources on having adequate and accessible treatment programming would be a better investment of time, finances, and energy.”
Opponents to legalizing marijuana include Gov. Mike DeWine, some lawmakers and statewide law enforcement organizations.
Foes say they worry that legalization will lead to a rise in illegal cannabis black markets and it will become a lot easier for kids and teens to get their hands on the drug.
“At the end of the day people need to ask themselves whether the risk to our kids, the risk of having more high drivers on our roadways and the open door for black market drug trafficking is worth making a few people in the legal marijuana industry rich,” said Tobin, with the prosecuting attorneys association. “It’s not worth all of the danger that comes with it.”