Defiance County Sheriff David Westrick laments what he considers law enforcement’s defeat in the war on pot.
“We lost the battle against marijuana, so to legalize it makes no sense,” he said. “We lost it because it’s so prevalent, and people don’t think it’s as bad as other drugs.”
Westrick said even the Multi Area Narcotics Task Force of Northwest Ohio no longer places as much emphasis on battling pot, since offenders receive minimal sentences and the cost of processing offenders can get expensive.
But he supports the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association’s stand against State Issue 3, a marijuana legalization initiative on Ohio’s Nov. 3 ballot. The organization has called on the sheriffs of all 88 counties to sign petitions decrying the proposal as dangerous to citizens and society as a whole.
The sheriffs have banded together within four BSSA groups, each representing 22 counties in one quarter of the state. The Northwest District Sheriffs include those in Fulton, Defiance, Williams, and Henry counties, who signed a petition opposing Issue 3.
Drafted as a constitutional amendment by Responsible Ohio, a grass-roots organization, Issue 3 backs the legal recreational and medicinal use of marijuana by adults 21 and older. It would permit 10 state-sanctioned, competitive growing centers whose product would be regulated by a newly-created Ohio Marijuana Control Commission and sold legally in retail outlets. And it would allow each household in the state to cultivate four marijuana plants.
Despite the current wave of heroin many drug abusers are riding, the Henry County Sheriff’s Office still makes pot busts. “It’s readily available. If you want it, you’re going to find it,” Sheriff Michael Bodenbender said.
In his duties Bodenbender has encountered children as young as 12 experimenting with marijuana. Compared to heroin and other arguably more dangerous illicit substances, some people don’t regard it as much of a threat, he said.
What people don’t take into consideration is that marijuana is a gateway drug that can lead to other addictions, Bodenbender said.
“People don’t consider it as harmful. They’ll say marijuana is no big deal, because look what heroin does,” he added.
From January 2012 to the present, Bodenbender’s office has made 66 arrests relating to marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia. He predicts that if marijuana is legalized through Issue 3 it’s certain to increase the workload of law enforcement agencies.
“We’ll probably get calls about people being high at work,” he said. “I can see it coming, but it won’t be our issue anymore because it’s legal,” he said.
Legal pot would slightly alter the terms of probable cause, and Bodenbender’s deputies would have to determine how best to detect it in motorists. A blood test costs $150, and the sheriff’s office does not budget for them or get reimbursed. All drug-related blood tests must be processed by the state to be deemed admissible as evidence.
And contrary to what marijuana supporters insist, the drug will become even more accessible to kids, Bodenbender said. “They’re going to get hold of it because it’s there. It’s not criminal anymore; (users are) not hiding it.”
Issue 3 is hardly a threat to drug cartels, he said. They will welcome legalization as an opportunity to profit by undercutting the government price of pot.
“These are things people don’t think about,” he said.
There isn’t one Ohio sheriff unsupportive of BSSA’s opposition to legal pot, Executive Director Robert Cornwell said. They share a collective concern for the creation of a marijuana processing monopoly. But more so, he said, they fear for the welfare of children and safety conditions at workplaces.
Cornwell said children will suffer increased exposure to marijuana smoke. He also worries about “edibles,” snack foods infused with potent marijuana oil that would be sold at retail venues. He said they’re marketed to children in packaging indistinguishable from regular snack foods.
“They’re made to look like what kids would want to eat, irrespective of what they would do to them physically and mentally,” Cornwell said.
He also believes workplace accidents would increase, since policies regarding legal marijuana don’t exist.
“We have a certain expectation for safety within the workplace,” Cornwell said. “When (workers) are under the influence of marijuana these safety precautions are not there. People who work in factories could be very susceptible to a lackadaisical attitude and hurt themselves or others. I don’t think most people have even considered these kinds of off-shoots.”
According to data gleaned by the BSSA from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the American Association of Poison Control Centers, and Quest Diagnostics, a diagnostic information service based in Madison, N.J.:
• Marijuana is most commonly the illegal drug found in impaired motorists and those involved in both fatal and non-fatal vehicle accidents.
• Among illegal drugs involved in 28 percent of driver fatalities, and positively detected in 11 percent of the general driving population, marijuana is the most common.
• It remains the illicit drug most commonly found in employee urine drug tests.
The data also revealed facts about the legal marijuana trade in Colorado, including:
• Nearly 40 percent of marijuana sold there in 2014 was from the black market.
• Pet poisonings from marijuana have quadrupled over the past six years.
• The potency of THC, marijuana’s active chemical ingredient, has more than tripled since 1995, to 12.33 percent.
Consistently, about 85 percent of people arrested for drug use in Williams County say they began with marijuana. Unfortunately, marijuana laws are generally weak, resulting in a minor misdemeanor charge for possession of up to 100 grams.
Sheriff Steven Towns said that doesn’t involve jail time, and appears as a lesser infraction than an alcohol-related offense.
The problems attached to legal marijuana are innumerable, both for law enforcement agencies and the public, Towns said.
“The unintended collateral damage and consequences, you can’t image right now. You can’t compare it to the prohibition of alcohol. Marijuana is a lot different,” he said.
He cited the plant itself, which pot proponents argue is organic, and therefore harmless.
“Marijuana has changed so much over the last 30 or 40 years. The plants have been engineered, and the THC level is immensely higher,” Towns said.
And his short-staffed department would be further taxed by a new crop of marijuana-related complications. He said they could include questions about validating pot-induced traffic violations and handling open-use violations.
“It will make it harder to police that drug culture, because they’ll be more brazen out in public,” Towns said. “And there’s going to be a lot of exposure to people who don’t want to be exposed to marijuana. I should have the legal right not to be exposed to it.”
The backlash would take years to sort out, he said. “They’re going to have to put a lot more thought into it than just throwing it on the ballot. It’s not going to work the way it’s written on paper, I can tell you. It won’t translate to real life.”
Towns said the bottom line “is about dollars and cents to people on the beneficiary end, and I don’t think they have the best interests of the public in mind. It’s not a good idea to make it legal.”
Westrick said because marijuana is an hallucinogen he can’t advocate it for medicinal use either. “I don’t think we should make money on (marijuana). Come up with overwhelming evidence that medical marijuana is the only solution, and then I would consider changing my mind,” he said.
As discouraged as he may feel about law enforcement’s war on pot, Westrick isn’t ready to walk away.
“Because we’re not successful doesn’t mean to give up on it,” he said.
According to Cornwell, “There is no good to come from this constitutional amendment. I’m very concerned it would pass, but I’m also optimistic that the people of Ohio are smart enough to vote against Issue 3.”
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.