This local piece from Ohio reports on the interesting criminal justice echoes from hemp reforms playing out this summer in a number of states. The piece is fully headlined “No, Ohio did not accidentally legalize marijuana. But a new hemp legalization law is causing problems for prosecutors.” Here are excerpts:
Ohio prosecutors are holding off on pursuing marijuana charges or are even throwing them out altogether after Ohio decriminalized hemp.
Hemp and marijuana are cannabis plants; what sets them apart is the amount of THC, an intoxicating compound, each contains. The problem: Crime labs at the local and state level are equipped with technology that measures the presence of THC — but not the amount.
Hemp, by legal definition, is cannabis with less than 0.3 percent THC. Anything more, and it’s considered marijuana and illegal outside the confines of Ohio’s highly regulated medical marijuana program. “At least for the next several months, it’s the de facto legalization of marijuana because there’s no way for law enforcement to tell what’s legal and what’s not legal,” said Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sent prosecutors a letter last week suggesting they hold off on marijuana crime indictments until the cannabis can be tested. The state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation labs are in the process of buying and setting up testing equipment. Yost’s office suggested several out-of-state labs where law enforcement could send material until Ohio labs could run the test. The state’s three medical marijuana testing labs can perform the test, but need to first notify the Ohio Department of Commerce. None had done so as of Friday.
Because of the new hemp law, signed last week, Columbus won’t prosecute misdemeanor marijuana crimes and are dismissing pending cases. The law could permanently change how the city handles misdemeanor marijuana crimes due to the cost of new equipment and testing and the city’s newly reduced penalties for marijuana misdemeanors.
The holdup doesn’t mean Ohioans found with marijuana have a “get out of jail free card.” Columbus city attorney Zach Klein noted that marijuana remains illegal and can still be a legal reason to stop and search someone. Klein said driving under the influence of marijuana will still be prosecuted….
A wave of states, including Ohio, passed bills decriminalizing hemp this year following federal legalization by the 2018 Farm Bill. Law enforcement in several states are grappling with the same issue as Ohio.
Texas Department of Public Safety officers have been told to cite and release instead of arrest individuals suspected of misdemeanor marijuana crime, The Texas Tribune reported in July. Prosecutors in some parts of the state have dropped marijuana cases citing the inability to test for THC levels.
A prosecutor in Georgia’s second largest county dismissed more than 100 marijuana cases this week after reaching a similar conclusion. Florida prosecutors are taking a mixed approach, with some dismissing all marijuana charges and other waiting for lab tests before filing charges in the first place.