Garnering 53 percent of the vote, the citizens of Newark, Ohio voted to decriminalize marijuana on Tuesday, Nov. 8. Under the new law, a person will not face jail time or receive any fines if they are caught with under 200 grams of marijuana; that is, if they are charged under the new city law.
According to an article published in the Newark Advocate, the Newark Law Director Doug Sassen said the police would still charge people under the state law, which gives a 150 dollar fine for possession of less than 100 grams and a maximum penalty of $250 fine and a 30-day jail sentence for possession of 100-200 grams. The old city law carried up to a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail for possession of marijuana.
A similar law was passed in Toledo last November, and now Logan, Roseville, and Bellaire all have passed marijuana reform legislation similar to Newark’s.
With statewide legislation receiving most of the attention this election season, a further look at marijuana’s political history in Ohio shows a unique path to remodeling.
How we got here
For 42 year-old Alyssa Baker, Election Day was finally here. After a year of campaign for Ohio’s issue 3 amendment, an amendment that would allow the full legalization of recreational and medical marijuana, the big day had arrived. Baker and other activists with pro-marijuna group Responsible Ohio organized a viewing party at the Woodlands in downtown Columbus.
Among the attendees was Russ Bellville, a superstar in the marijuana reform movement who hosted his immensely popular radio show at the Woodlands that night. Bellville, like many Americans, had his eyes and ears set on Ohio to see if the swing state would follow in the steps of Colorado, Washington and Oregon.
“Within 5 minutes we knew it had failed,” Baker said. “I sat on stage with Russ and received text after text from mom’s of these sick kids; kids with epilepsy and other conditions that might die because they can’t get their medicine.”
Ohio’s issue 3 failed by nearly 30 percent, totaling almost a million fewer votes than those not in favor. There are a number of reasons why citizens of Ohio opted against the legalization of the drug, but the primary reason was it would give ten investors monopolistic control of the market. Some citizens, elected officials and other public figures argued that the backers were invested in the endeavor to fund their own financial interests, not for the good of those that use it for medicine.
Among those elected officials was State Auditor David Yost, who wrote in an op-ed piece to Cleveland’s newspaper The Plain Dealer.
“A legalized, properly licensed market should be available to all comers, not just the few with the money to enshrine into the Ohio Constitution a monopoly for themselves.” Issue 3 gained so much opposition that Ohio legislators crafted a backup bill to nullify it if it passed, issue 2. Ohio’s House and Senate voted to place Issue 2 on the ballot, a constitutional amendment that prohibited any petitioner to create a monopoly. Issue 2 was ultimately unnecessary, but it passed 51.33 percent in favor to 48.67 percent against. Marijuana went 0 for 2.
“All they wanted was a five year head start on the industry, which is really greedy but we would have had a full, up and running medical and recreational marijuana program,” Baker said.
Leanne Barbee, who worked with Barker for Responsible Ohio, felt sick for weeks after the vote.
“Me and one of the moms just sat there and held eachother and cried”. But Barbee and Baker refused to give up the fight. The two of them, along with other activists, are going city-by-city working to decriminalize the possession of less than 200 grams of marijuana.
A FIGHT FOR MEDICINE
“After it failed, we decided we needed to do something on our own that we could do with a small amount of resources and a handful of activists” Barbee said.
Barbee and Baker are proud residents of Newark, but they, like many residents, are victims of a drug epidemic. According to the Licking County Coroner’s Office, in 2015 there were 25 drug overdoses in Licking County, which was a 47 percent increase from 2014. Drugs were more fatal than car crashes in this town of less than 50,000 people. Barbee and Baker believe marijuana helps with drug abuse, and they may be right. In a 2014 study by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, states with medical marijuana programs had 25 percent less prescription drug overdoses than those without the programs.
“I was on methodone for chronic pain, and after three years of taking it I switched doctors. She took me off, cold turkey” Barbee said. “I thought maybe I could find some pills on the street, but no way I could afford that, not when they are five, ten, thirty dollars a pill.”
Barbee was an addict against her will.
“I was taking nine pills a day. The next thought naturally to an addicts mind, whether I was an addict by choice or not, was ‘I’m going to have to use heroin; heroin is going to help me get through this.’ Luckily someone gave me a bag of cannabis.” The group argues that marijuana is a holistic way to treat certain health conditions and alleviate the withdrawal symptoms of opioids and prescription medications.
“Yeah, it was still hell, but I made it through it.”
Barbee and Baker look like typical, suburban middle-aged women. Baker sports thin-framed glasses, and appears tall with thick, curly blond hair. Barbee, 35, is a short, big boned woman, who flashes a crooked but infectious smile. If they were not wearing Sensible Newark tee shirts donning marijuana leaves, nothing about either of them would suggest that they smoke weed. And they know it.
“You’re not going to look at me and shake me down for drugs, so I feel like my priviledge is my fight,” Baker said.
Barbee and Baker began collecting signatures in March with a new group, The Ohioans for Marijuana Policy Project.
“They promised us with this great marijuana initiative, one comparable to Michigan’s medical program” Barbee said. “But shortly after [legislators] saw momentum, they decided to start looking into a bill.” That bill, House Bill 523, would allow people suffering from any of 20 conditions including AIDS/HIV, Alzheimer’s or Cancer, to be able to legally consume marijuana through any form but smoking, allowing vaporizing and THC-infused food. However, if a patient is caught with marijuana, the individual will be arrested and would need to provide a letter of affirmative defense signed by a doctor. But there’s a catch: doctors are not allowed to sign the letter. The Ohio State Medical Association has advised their doctors to wait for more information about the effects of the drug and the bill itself before signing them.
Ohioans for Marijuana Policy Project withdrew their funding after John Kasich signed House Bill 523 into law on June 9th, , 2016, making Ohio the 26th state to have a medical marijuana program.
MEDICAL, BUT FINALLY SENSIBLE
Barbee and Baker saw the butchered medical marijuana initiative coming together before it officially was signed, and they quickly assembled a team in May to get enough signatures to put the decriminalization of marijuana on Newark’s 2016 election ballot. By the first week of July their newly founded group, Sensible Newark, had their goal: 1,107 signatures. And through more groundwork, flyers and knocking on doors, they reached another goal: decriminalization.
“We were really excited,” said Barbee, who admitted they were expecting a response from top officials in Newark. “We were expecting them to come back with something because the city officials didn’t want this.” Three days after the election results, Barbee received a call from the Newark advocate that Newark officials were not going to abide by the new law. They believe they faced a political bias throughout their entire campaign.
Even members of their own were hesitant to join because of the stigmas surrounding their work. Kody Barclay, a mental health counselor and addiction specialist, was initially reluctant.
“I’ve been a staunch proponent for years, but I’m a social worker. I’ve got six years of college loans” Barclay said. “I risked losing my license if I joined them. But finally enough was enough. I went full force and I’m willing to risk my entire livelihood because it really is that important to me.”
Barclay linked up with Barbee and the Ohioans for Marijuana Policy Project in March.
“I’ve been to 37 funerals over the past 18 months, and all of them started with prescription opioids” said Barclay. “There are people that would rather be taking naturopathic medications but they don’t know whether they should take legal prescription drugs or marijuana.”
Despite small numbers and only 1,500 dollars of grassroots funding, the members of Sensible Newark are still optimistic. Toledo, the first city in the state to pass legislation under the Sensible name, has had people avoid penalties from the new laws. The first was 18 year old Mariah Smith, who according to the Toledo Blade, was arrested and convicted but received no penalties or fines. Barbee hopes the courts will dismiss the cases of people arrested with small amounts of marijuana.
“We expect the police will eventually stop arresting people in order to better utilize their time,” Barbee said.
Photo Courtesy of Owen Smith/The Denisonian