Dayton voters in November will get to decide whether to decriminalize possessing small quantities of marijuana, which would make the city one of the few Ohio communities to remove the penalties for recreational drug possession.
The Dayton City Commission on Wednesday approved placing a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot that could lead to the city eliminating fines and potentially jail punishments for pot possession.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said the war on drugs has been a complete failure, and criminalizing marijuana has not stopped a huge share of the population from using the drug and unfortunately it has put many people behind bars who do not belong there.
Dayton citizens in a few months will get a chance to have their voices heard on marijuana, and if they want to decriminalize it, hopefully that would allow Dayton law enforcement to focus on more important priorities, the mayor said.
“It’s not a gateway drug and it’s not as adverse as alcohol, and though we don’t want young people smoking marijuana, we don’t want it to be criminalized,” she said.
If decriminalization is approved by voters, Dayton would join a growing list of cities across the country that have decreased or removed the penalties for lower-level marijuana violations, including Toledo, Pittsburgh, Pa., and Detroit, Mich.
Public opinion on marijuana has been tilting toward decriminalization and legalization, but some anti-drug advocates have argued that removing the legal punishments of marijuana possession will lead to increased availability and use of the drug.
Leaving issue up to voters
On Wednesday night, the city commission approved an ordinance that calls for an advisory election on the November ballot that asks voters if they want to decriminalize certain misdemeanor marijuana and hashish offenses.
Dayton voters will cast ballots for or against decriminalization, and the city commission will use the election results to decide whether to pass legislation amending the marijuana-related sections of the city’s code of ordinances, said Barbara Doseck, city of Dayton law director.
If the ballot measure passes, the city would eliminate the $150 fine for minor misdemeanor marijuana and hashish possession offenses.
What’s the current law?
Right now under city code, the possession of 100 grams or less of marijuana is a minor misdemeanor punishable by a $150 fine, said Martin Gehres, assistant city of Dayton attorney.
Possession of between 100 to 200 grams is a fourth degree misdemeanor, which is a jailable offense of up to 30 days, he said.
The city also could change the code so that possessing drug paraphernalia associated with marijuana and hashish offenses would be a minor misdemeanor, also subject to no fine, officials said.
Marijuana is still illegal
But marijuana will still be illegal in Ohio no matter how Dayton residents vote, because the measure would not impact state or federal laws, Gehres said.
Under state code, possession of 100 grams or less is a minor misdemeanor and possession of 100 grams to 200 grams is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, Gehres said. Possession over the 200-gram threshold is a felony.
If decriminalization succeeds at the ballot, city leaders will have to work out exactly how to amend the law, and multiple city departments will need to have internal discussions about how to apply and enforce city code, Doseck said.
“This is just an advisory election to see what the will of the people is,” Doseck said.
Mayor Whaley said personally she will be voting in favor of decriminalization because marijuana is not a gateway drug and its prohibition and criminalization has failed and was based on faulty claims.
Law enforcement’s resources shouldn’t be wasted on trivial marijuana offenses, and “the decriminalization of marijuana is a wrongheaded way to deal with the drug issue,” Whaley said.
The Dayton commission has the power to change the city’s marijuana laws on its own, but commissioners wanted citizens to weigh in on this important issue, Whaley said.
According to the marijuana-legalization advocacy group Norml, more than 50 jurisdictions in a dozen states have enacted laws or resolutions to decriminalize minor cannabis possession offenses.
This includes Toledo, where voters in 2015 overwhelmingly approved a citizen-initiated measure abolishing jail terms and fines for possessing marijuana.
But Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and others sued over the ordinance, claiming it was in conflict with state law related to the prosecution and penalties for felony marijuana offenses.
Calls to change and ease marijuana laws in Ohio has been getting louder in recent years.
Though Ohio voters in 2015 shot down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have legalized recreational marijuana recreationally, the proposal was strongly criticized for attempting to create a “monopoly” that would have enriched the plan’s backers.
The Ohio General Assembly and Gov. John Kasich approved legalizing medical marijuana in 2016.
About six in 10 Americans today are in favor of legalizing marijuana, which is up from about one in 10 in the late 1960s, according to Pew Research.