The Ohio Senate resoundingly voted to double the amount of cannabis that is decriminalized, as well as reduce criminal sanctions for various other drug-related infractions.

The measure, Senate Bill 3 (SB 3), had been delayed for months owing to the coronavirus outbreak but finally cleared a Senate committee and was waved through in a 24-5 vote on the same day. The bill now makes its way to the House for further deliberation.

If passed into law, the bill would ensure that individuals found with 200 grams of cannabis would not be subject to arrest, jail time or a criminal record. Rather, they’d have to pay a fine of no more than $150, and this would not need to be reported to any potential employer, landlord or school administrator. The measure also decriminalizes up to 10 grams of hashish.

“Among other criminal justice changes, SB 3 would reduce the sentences for several marijuana offenses, including by doubling the amount of marijuana that is decriminalized,” as summarized by Karen O’Keefe, Marijuana Policy Project’s director of state policies.

Ohio already had the country’s most generous decriminalization laws out of those states where marijuana remains illegal: possession of up to 100 grams is currently considered a “minor misdemeanor.” Possession of more than 100 grams but less than 200 grams is currently punishable by up to 20 days in jail.

Law enforcement officers are, however, still empowered to arrest an individual in possession of marijuana if they refuse to provide identification, sign the civil citation, or are deemed to pose a threat to public safety. Civil liberties advocates contend these powers still create the conditions for discriminatory police practices.

As well as decriminalizing up to 200 grams of cannabis, SB 3 would also downgrade amounts greater than 200 grams from a felony to a misdemeanor. Amounts between 200 and 400 grams would be a fourth-degree misdemeanor; 400 to 1,000 grams would be a first-degree misdemeanor. For hashish, 10 to 20 grams would be a fourth-degree misdemeanor, while 20 to 50 grams would be a first-degree misdemeanor.

Other provisions in the bill empower judges to either pause or dismiss criminal charges against defendants who complete drug treatment programs. Drugs other than marijuana also see similar downgrades reclassifying possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.

“I think the overarching goal of the bill is to take small amounts of possession that are clearly for personal use and make that a misdemeanor,” Senate President Larry Obhof (R) said. “That’s really been one of the bigger sticking points over the last year as we’ve considered this. What is really the right amount for personal use versus at what number do we then say, ‘You’re not really using this. You’re a trafficker.’ We’re trying to work that out.”

O’Keefe welcomed lawmakers’ attempts at drawing such a distinction but said the root of the problem is in viewing marijuana as a criminal justice matter in the first place.

“While these are welcome reforms, Ohio lawmakers should listen to their constituents and legalize marijuana,” O’Keefe said. “There is no need for any police-civilian interaction around simple possession of marijuana. Issuing fines for cannabis possession wastes governmental resources and opens the door to unequal policing and abusive encounters. Ohio should follow Michigan’s lead and legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana for adults.”

Marijuana reform advocates in Ohio intended to do just that through a ballot initiative this year, but the signature-gathering process was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social distancing guidelines, as was the case in many other states. One group seeking to put cannabis decriminalization questions on the ballots of 14 Ohio municipalities sought permission from the state’s Supreme Court to collect signatures electronically, but this was rejected. It’s worth remembering Ohio voters rejected a 2015 ballot measure to legalize adult-use marijuana, but reform advocates believe that proposal didn’t represent the interests of Ohioans. The group behind the 2015 measure were big cannabis industry players and the marijuana legalization question they proposed would have given them and their industry allies a near monopoly on the subsequent legal marijuana market.

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