Don Keeney, executive director of NORML Appalachia of Ohio and Ally Reaves, founder of Midwest Cannawomen and Ohio director for Minorities for Marijuana. Credit: Submitted

Ohio cannabis decriminalization advocates say there’s a disconnect between conservative local leaders and a growing voter pro-cannabis majority. To prove it, they’re using local and statewide ballot initiatives to change laws their leaders don’t support.

“I can honestly speak to what these people want, and they definitely want this, but the elected officials are not listening,” Don Keeney, executive director of NORML Appalachia of Ohio, said of those areas that are holding out. “They’ll say our people don’t want this stuff and I go behind them in their districts and decriminalize cities and villages and win with big majorities.”

The hard-core “reefer madness” mindset still exists in the small villages as well as the big cities, Keeney added. 

The solutions however are not only just cannabis decriminalization, it’s also going a step farther to right the wrong that’s been done to Black and Latino communities, advocates say.

“It’s also implementing the social equity program in Ohio or may I say, re-implementing one to help people understand how they can have opportunities for ownership, entrepreneurship and also employment in the medical cannabis industry in the state of Ohio,” said Ally Reaves, founder of Midwest Cannawomen and the Ohio state director for Minorities for Marijuana. 

Born and raised in Cleveland, Reaves has many personal experiences with the war on drugs and its impact on the Black community.

According to a Drug Policy Alliance study, higher arrests and incarceration rates for Black and Latino communities are not due to higher drug use, but a result of law enforcement’s focus on urban, lower income communities of color. For example, individuals caught selling small amounts of drugs to support their own drug use face long jail times.

Reaves spoke highly of advocates aggressively pursuing decriminalization, particularly NORML Appalachia of Ohio and an offshoot of that group, the Sensible Movement Coalition an organization that has been working to pass local decriminalization ballots in cities across the state.

“We were able to get the city of Cleveland decriminalized back in 2019 with the assistance of Cleveland City Councilman Blaine Griffin,” Reaves said. “The efforts are going great but the main focus for me is understanding how we can get these cases and expungements to the forefront for minorities that have been victimized.”

Keeney and his members took on five Ohio city initiatives at once for the 2021 election cycle.

“We tried in five different municipalities and the ballot initiatives passed in three of them,” Keeney said. “New Lexington was our biggest winner. We also won in New Straitsville and Murray City. Losses were in Laurelville and McArthur but they were close losses. It was an off-year election with a small voter turnout.”

Another ballot initiative is planned for those two municipalities.

“The wheels are already in motion,” Keeney said. “Each one of these is its own initiative. “It’s going to have language pertaining directly to the specific municipality. We run it through the process from collecting signatures to getting it on the ballot.”

The group has been doing this since 2015 with most of the petitioning being done door-to-door with some efforts through planned events.

“It follows the election cycle,” Keeney said. “There are several hundred cities in Ohio. We got 29 municipalities done at the end of the 2021 election cycle. We’re gearing up for 2022. Some of the larger cities, Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, and two villages, Plymouth and Yellow Springs were adopted by council vote. “

Conservatives see the word “cannabis” as something that should not be embraced, say advocates.

“I’ve gone in to file petitions and the clerk would be as nice as can be but as soon as they see what it is, they turn into an instant sourpuss,” Keeney said. ”We’ve had some who refuse to do their job. By law, they’re required to do their job. We have to call our lawyer, and he straightens them out.”

An initiative petition passed in Jacksonville last year changed possession of 200 grams of marijuana or less to a misdemeanor drug abuse offense. Conviction under this section will no longer result in a fine.

Similarly, possession of less than ten grams of solid hashish or less than two grams of liquid hashish, is also a misdemeanor drug abuse offense, according to current Ohio law. Convictions for that amount carry no monetary penalty in Jacksonville, as a result of the new laws passed by petition in 2020.

Now, in Jacksonville, convictions for selling, manufacturing, or using marijuana or hashish paraphernalia, has no monetary fine.

Another group, Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, is collecting signatures to require the state legislature to vote on a proposed bill. The organization needs to gather about 133,000 signatures to get their proposed law before the legislators in 2022 as part of a unique Ohio process of “legislative petition”. If they fail, they get a second chance to gather signatures again to make it into a ballot initiative. 

As of today, Ohio has 57 medical dispensaries, with fifteen Level 1 cultivator licenses, authorized for up to 20,000 square feet of canopy, and twelve Level 2 cultivator licenses, authorized for up to 3,000 square feet of canopy. State regulators are accepting applications for 73 new dispensaries with a November 18 deadline.

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.