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How Cannabis Depenalization Would Look in Athens, Ohio

How Cannabis Depenalization Would Look in Athens, Ohio
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The Athens Cannabis Ordinance, or TACO, would from misdemeanor marijuana offenses in Athens, but student supporters might be disappointed to learn the ordinance won’t affect citations on campus.

Ohio University Police Department officers write citations based on the Ohio Revised Code, not Athens ordinances. Therefore, the ordinance won’t apply to citations OUPD writes.

“So all these people who are thinking it’s going to do something on campus, it’s not,” Athens Law Director Lisa Eliason said.

People convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession can face up to 30 days in jail and be fined up to $250 for 100-200 grams, or be fined up to $150 with no jail time for 100 grams or fewer.

Athens resident Caleb Brown, one of the leaders of the petition, said the ordinance would reduce the incentive for Athens police officers to enforce marijuana laws.

“Law enforcement is a business just like any other one,” Brown wrote in an email. “With no fines or court costs to be paid from local citations, the justice system will quickly recognize that enforcing misdemeanor marijuana offenses in town is not a profitable venture.”

While drug fines don’t go directly to APD, they do enter the city’s general fund. Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said the department doesn’t profit from marijuana citations and that he wouldn’t expect depenalization to change the number of citations officers write.

Marijuana is already a low priority for Athens police officers. When the smell of marijuana coming from a particular house becomes too intense at a fest, Pyle said officers sometimes tell the homeowners to shut the windows to contain the smoke.

“I’ve been at fests in such close proximity to secondary smoke that I got the munchies,” Pyle said.

As of Wednesday, APD officers had written 11 citations for marijuana possession in 2017.

“So does that sound like we’re hot after it?” Pyle said. “Not to me, it doesn’t.”

OUPD Lt. Tim Ryan said his department doesn’t prioritize marijuana citations, either.

“There are bigger fish to fry,” he said.

But OUPD’s marijuana citations dwarf APD’s citations. During the second weekend of Fall Semester, OUPD officers wrote 13 marijuana possession citations, as many as APD officers wrote in all of 2016.

TACO wouldn’t apply to those OUPD citations. It also can’t address the other penalties that accompany a marijuana citation. Students convicted of marijuana offenses risk .

That’s why the City of Athens has a standing plea deal for people charged with marijuana possession. In exchange for a guilty plea, the city prosecutor will amend a minor misdemeanor marijuana citation to minor misdemeanor disorderly conduct, Eliason said.

The plea deal comes with a $50 fine and court costs. If the ordinance passes in November, some students will choose between paying nothing and losing financial aid or paying the fee and keeping their aid. Eliason said she doesn’t plan to reduce the fees for the plea deal beyond what her office already has — in January, her office reduced the fine from $150 for the plea deal.

“So that doesn’t really do much,” Eliason said. “Now, we could still amend it to a disorderly conduct, but we’ll amend it to something that has a fine. I’m not going to amend it to zero.”

Eliason also said she doesn’t think the ordinance can remove the associated court costs.

“But that would be another court case,” Eliason said. “If we pursue it.”

Brown said he doesn’t expect marijuana citations to go down. He sees the ordinance as more of a symbolic statement that Athens residents don’t want marijuana enforcement to be a priority.

More importantly, he thinks the ordinance would increase marijuana users’ sense of freedom.

“It’s a pretty known fact that large numbers of the population use cannabis, but under the current prohibition laws, they have to hide, and they have to lie, and they have to feel afraid,” he said. “And if we changed the ordinance … then it would allow people to be able to step out of their hiding space in their house and hang out outside on their porch and their lawn and not fear repercussions for something they know is not bad.”

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