HOCKING COUNTY – Advocates in two Hocking County villages have gathered enough signatures to get an initiative for municipal marijuana decriminalization on the November ballot.

The Hocking County Board of Elections (BOE) certified in May that advocates working in Murray City had collected enough signatures on a petition to get the initiative of marijuana decriminalization in the village on the ballot.

Advocates working in Laurelville have accomplished the same, Hocking County BOE Deputy Director Georgia Ricketts-Smith told The Logan Daily News Monday.

If the initiative makes it onto the villages’ ballots, voters would decide whether to remove the fines for the possession of minor misdemeanor amounts of marijuana and hashish, within their villages: less than 200 grams of marijuana, less than 10 grams of solid hashish or less than 2 grams of liquid hashish. However, possession itself would remain a crime.

Currently, the penalties for possession of minor misdemeanor amounts also include a maximum $150 fine and a possible driver’s license suspension.

Advocates from the national Sensible Movement Coalition (SMC)’s regional chapter, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Appalachia of Ohio, are those behind these initiative petitions for “The Sensible Marihuana Ordinance.”

NORML Appalachia of Ohio Executive Director Don Keeney told The Logan Daily News many residents of southeast Ohio are receptive to such initiatives.

Keeney and others go door-to-door in towns of all sizes, with populations of mere hundreds to several thousands, to collect signatures and hear viewpoints. NORML advocates even help people register to vote, he added.

Keeney, a Logan native, has worked in regional decriminalization efforts for almost a decade. For him, ballot initiatives are a “direct” way of enacting democracy.

“We follow the law to a T,” Keeney said, adding that the Ohio Constitution guarantees municipalities home rule.

Municipal government bodies such as village or city councils can pass such decriminalization laws like “The Sensible Marihuana Ordinance” because of home rule; however, ballot initiatives seem to be more effective in small towns, Keeney said.

Keeney said there are five municipalities NORML is petitioning in this year: Laurelville, McArthur, Murray City, New Lexington and New Straitsville.

For each town’s NORML petitions, Keeney creates a Facebook page; so far there are 13, he said. Sensible Laurelville’s Facebook page has almost 170 likes and Sensible Murray City’s Facebook page has almost 190.

Getting an initiative on the ballot by petition is a three-step process, Ricketts-Smith explained.

“(Petitioners) have to file with the village what their intent is,” Ricketts-Smith said. “They give (the village) a copy of the petition and the whole initiative and let (it) know they will be in that area doing petitions.”

After the village is aware, it calls the board of elections. Advocates must collect signatures equal to the amount of at least 10% of the last general election’s voter turnout in order for the initiative to qualify.

After that, advocates file a petition with the village. The village then has 10 days to send the petition to the board of elections to “certify” it — validate signatures. Once certified, the initiative is eligible to go on the ballot.

As of Monday, the BOE is still waiting for both villages to get their initiatives on the November ballot. They have until Aug. 4, Ricketts-Smith said.

“(We at NORML) have gotten good at (ballot initiatives),” Keeney said. “(It’s) a very powerful tool they put in the Constitution years ago when people felt they can’t get changes done through elected people, so we can do this instead.”

According to data from the Hocking County BOE, 209 Laurelville residents voted in the Nov. 3, 2020 general election, meaning about 21 signatures were required for its initiative petition; in Murray City, 141 residents voted in the 2020 general election, meaning only 14 signatures were required.

The people of Logan voted to pass the city’s own Sensible Marihuana Ordinance in 2016 with an over 58% approval rate, according to a previous Logan Daily News report. That was the second time NORML put the initiative up for vote in Logan, Keeney said. But in 2018, the News reported that the city altered the ordinance to obey state law.

Logan Police Department (LPD) Capt. Ryan Gabriel told The Logan Daily News Tuesday that Logan’s 2016 Sensible Marihuana ordinance didn’t make much difference to the department — LPD still cites marijuana possession under Ohio Revised Code.

In an 2018 interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Gabriel said Logan police issue between 50 and 100 misdemeanor marijuana citations per year — numbers that haven’t really changed before or after the city’s ordinance even into 2021, he confirmed via email Wednesday.

“I believe the marijuana citation numbers are pretty consistent, a little less maybe,” he stated.

If an LPD officer found someone to be in possession of less than 200 grams of marijuana — about the size of a large freezer bag — it would be seized and charged as a misdemeanor, as LPD would cite it under Ohio Revised Code Section 2925.11, Gabriel said, which states that if the amount of marijuana involved equals or exceeds 100 grams but is less than 200, it is a fourth-degree misdemeanor.

“Usually if there’s no other charges, they get a misdemeanor citation; they go to court,” Gabriel said. “Unless you have another underwriting charge or on probation... you’re not going to get cuffed and taken to the (Southeastern Ohio) Regional Jail because you’ve got a baggie of weed.”

For Gabriel, marijuana decriminalization is a trend that he saw emerge in the 1980s. “Just from my experiences, marijuana is decriminalized almost to the point where it’s not criminal — although it still is,” he said.

Some law enforcement K-9s aren’t trained to detect marijuana anymore. For example the Hocking County Sheriff’s Office’s (HCSO) newest addition K-9 Zara can identify four odors — none of which marijuana, the News previously reported this month.

And no one size fits all, as far as marijuana goes, Gabriel stressed; state laws differ from federal laws, and municipal laws differ from state laws.

“We’ve got to have a more uniform template on how this is going to be,” Gabriel said, adding that he anticipates statewide marijuana decriminalization within the next few years.

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that New York ssenator and majority leader Chuck Schumer plans to propose legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.

When and if state/federal laws change, the LPD will adapt and enforce them, the captain said.

A bigger issue for law enforcement, as far as marijuana legalization goes, is the inability to gauge the sobriety of someone using marijuana while operating a vehicle, Gabriel explained.

Alcohol is essentially the only drug that can be tested for at the scene, though sobriety field tests and blood samples can be executed, Gabriel said.

Mayors of both villages told The Logan Daily News Monday that they want to know more about the initiative and the advocates’ intentions before they choose to put it to vote.

“I am not sure because we’re still trying to investigate what (the advocates) want,” Laurelville Mayor Brent Ebert said. “As far as me, I don’t care if they get it on the ballot — let people vote on it.”

Like Ebert, Murray City Mayor Michael Dupler said he wants to know more information. The topic will be discussed with the HCSO at the next village council meeting Thursday, he said.

Mayor Dupler also noted that as of April, Murray City no longer has its own police department; neither does Laurelville, as of 2019, according to a previous News report. Both now receive HCSO services instead.

If pursued and passed by the villages, Murray City and Laurelville would join another 22 municipalities across the state that have passed marijuana decriminalization ordinances, including but not limited to: Athens, Bremen, Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Glouster, Jacksonville, Nelsonville and Roseville.

The General Election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 2. The deadline to register to vote, which can be done at the Hocking County BOE, located at 93 W. Hunter St., is Monday, Oct. 4.

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