City Law The push for marijuana ‘depenalization’ in Athens has started By Delaney Murray Posted on September 7, 2017 8 min read 1 0 2,291 A marijuana sample. Source: Pixabay As of right now, if Athens police find an individual in possession of up to 200 grams of marijuana, they’ll face a hefty fine and possible jail time. TACO could remove those penalties for good. Athens voters will have the chance this November to decide whether misdemeanor marijuana offenses will still have penalties in the city. The Athens Cannabis Ordinance proposes what city resident and co-author Caleb Brown refers to as “depenalization,” or removing fines from misdemeanor cannabis offenses. The ordinance is based off Article 18, Section 3 of the Ohio State Constitution, which allows Ohio municipalities to alter laws and penalties for misdemeanors within their city limits. Currently, other Ohio cities including Toledo, Newark, Bellaire, Logan and Roseville have pushed through similar proposals. The law passed in Toledo in 2015 and was the first removal of misdemeanor charges for marijuana offenses in Ohio, The Athens News reported. Ohio legalized medical marijuana in September 2016 but still charges offenses for recreational use. Currently, marijuana related misdemeanors in Ohio are defined by possession of 200 or fewer grams, and offenders can be fined between $150 and $250 for possession. Possession of between 100 and 200 grams can also result in up to 30 days of jail time. While TACO was proposed in 2016, it did not make the city ballot last year because only 317 of 319 collected signatures for the original ordinance were validated. This year, Brown ensured that there would be fewer issues with the signatures submitted by ensuring that signature collectors also carried valid voter registration cards. Aside from the problems with the collected signatures, there were also issues with how the previous ordinance itself was written. The Athens News published a piece in 2016 containing possible concerns from Athens Law Director Lisa Eliason, including that the changes proposed in the 2016 ordinance would not apply to misdemeanors on the Ohio University campus. At the time, the article caused many Athens voters to be cautious of the proposal. In order to counter some of these previous issues, Brown and other Athens residents spearheading TACO met directly with Eliason to address her prior concerns. The group also paid attention to the guidelines laid out in Ohio House Bill 463, which states that a county Board of Elections must throw out an initiative petition if they deem it to be invalid. In an email, Brown explained that when Lucas County Court in Toledo had previously decided to remove felony provisions on a similar marijuana related ordinance, it ruled that cities do not prosecute felonies in Ohio. Rather, counties prosecute felonies, so cities cannot, by initiative petition nor by city council action, pass ordinances that modify penalties for felonies. This meant that TACO had to be streamlined to eliminate any contentious additions. The new ordinance focused solely on removing penalties for misdemeanor cannabis offenses rather than changing the nature of the charges themselves. These changes ultimately shortened the ordinance to one page in length. Welcome Weekend Crime: Underages, marijuana possession and… car damage by musical instrument? https://t.co/sEVNr4Kd9s — The New Political (@TheNewPolitical) September 1, 2017 Residents also sought assistance from Richard McGinn of the Athens County Charter for additional advice on how to make this year’s ordinance more successful. Particularly, McGinn offered guidance about how to achieve the needed number of signatures as well as overall support for the bill. “When you collect signatures, you’re trying to get as many as you can, so we try to focus on getting our allies,” McGinn said. “But when you’re on the campaign you try to get people that are opposed. You look for your friends when you collect signatures and then you go after the rest of the community in a larger campaign.” Overall, Brown believes that the changes to the ordinance and the community awareness of TACO that began last year have helped to create a more optimistic reaction to the ordinance this year. “What I found was overwhelming support with a degree of curiosity. A lot of people were surprised to learn that cities in Ohio have prospects like this, and that we are able to make reforms in our small town.” Brown said. “The conversations that I’ve been hearing are overwhelmingly positive, and I think that’s partially because (TACO) is so simple this year. There’s nothing really contentious about it, and it just removes fines from misdemeanor cannabis offenses.” Going forward, Brown plans to organize some events on Ohio University’s campus to make sure students are registered to vote in Athens and will be able to partake in voting for TACO on Nov. 7. Correction: Caleb Brown was quoted incorrectly in a previous version of this article. The description of House Bill 463 was updated to better reflect its content.