Dayton leaders are asking voters if they want to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, a move some hailed as a big improvement and others criticized as a big mistake.
Decriminalizing marijuana likely would lead to fewer misdemeanor marijuana charges in Dayton and would allow law enforcement to focus on more pressing public safety concerns, like the opioid epidemic, said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, law professor with the University of Dayton’s School of Law.
“Anyone who spends a day in court knows this is a good idea,” he said. “(Police) have bigger fish to fry.”
But critics locally and around the country say legalizing and decriminalizing recreational marijuana are terrible ideas that send the wrong message that marijuana is not harmful.
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer said decriminalization promotes irresponsible substance abuse and would put the community’s children and motoring public at risk.
“We are never going to roll over on the war on drugs,” Plummer said. “Last year alone we lost 72,000 Americans due to substance abuse. We will stay in the fight for our kids.”
On Nov. 6, Dayton electors will get to vote on an advisory issue that asks if they want to reduce misdemeanor marijuana and hashish penalties.
The ballot will ask if Dayton’s revised code of general ordinances should be amended to decriminalize specific misdemeanor pot offenses, and citizens will vote for or against decriminalization.
The Dayton City Commission only will move forward with amending the city code if the majority of voters say yes to decriminalization, said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.
Citizens have asked Dayton’s elected leaders to reform the city’s marijuana laws, but commissioners want the community to decide this important issue, Whaley said.
Whaley said she supports decriminalization. She said the war on drugs has been a disaster that has disproportionately harmed minority community members who too often are unfairly put in jail and get criminal records.
Marijuana is not a gateway drug, most people have tried it and decriminalization would mean police can spend their resources on more important priorities, she said.
Depending on how the code is amended, marijuana would likely remain illegal in Dayton, but there wouldn’t be fines or other potential penalties like jail time for minor pot offenses, some legal experts say.
The city of Dayton’s proposed steps to decriminalize include amending the city code to eliminate the $150 fine for minor misdemeanor offenses.
Hoffmeister, the law professor, said decriminalizing minor pot offenses would help address the hypocrisy of a society where alcohol is legal but marijuana is not.
Alcohol is harmful and is a much bigger trigger for violent crime than pot, said Hoffmeister, citing his more than 20 years of experience in criminal law.
“I’m glad to see the city of Dayton is on the forefront of this issue,” he said.
Decriminalizing marijuana also hopefully would prevent people from being swept up in the criminal justice system because they cannot afford to pay the fines and end up getting hit with additional court fees that can lead to bench warrants and jail time, Hoffmeister said.
Police should focus their resources on the opioid crisis, which is killing people and ruining lives, he said.
But as the two men running for Ohio attorney general illustrate, there have been vastly different responses to Dayton’s proposal.
Democrat Steve Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor, said current marijuana laws have disproportionately hurt communities of color, which is why some Ohioans have decided to change those laws.
“I respect the right of local authorities and police officers to make decisions about the matters that impact their communities,” he said.
But Republican Dave Yost, a former county prosecutor and current state auditor, said: “A city cannot make legal what the state has made illegal. Does Dayton think it can also legalize prostitution?”
Sheriff Plummer, the head of the Montgomery County GOP and also a candidate for state representative against Democrat Ryan Taylor, said Ohioans have already spoken on this issue and voted down recreational use of marijuana in 2015.
Marijuana use violates state and federal law, and this failed policy of decriminalization is an attempt to supersede existing laws and the lawmakers who represent the community, he said.
Plummer said the county has led the state in overdose deaths and it’s wrong to promote more illegal substances in the community.
“This office will find a way to enforce both the state and federal laws as it pertains to substance abuse no matter where the violation occurs or who feels the need to pass illegal policies,” he said.