Columbus native Kenneth Schweickart, president of For A Better Ohio (http://www.ohiohemp.org), on Tuesday presented the Columbus city clerk with more than 10,000 signatures on petitions seeking a city initiative election to end criminal penalties for marijuana possession in the Ohio capital. The group needs 7,213 valid signatures for the petition to qualify for the November ballot. They will undergo the scrutiny of the Franklin County Board of Elections and the Columbus City Attorney's Office.
But Schweikart is confident the group's margin of error is large enough, he told the Columbus Dispatch. "That's after we weeded out the bad ones," he said.
If Schweikart is right, in November Columbus voters will have the opportunity to vote for a mild-mannered but far-reaching marijuana initiative that would effectively legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in the city while leaving the rest of the marijuana laws intact. Under the wording of the initiative, possession of less than seven ounces would remain a misdemeanor, but "marijuana misdemeanors are not an arrestable offense, and laws against small amounts of marijuana shall be the lowest priority of law enforcement, if such violations occur in the City of Columbus." Furthermore, "no ticket and no fine shall be issued," "no court appearance is required," and "no person may lose his or her drivers' license."
And with a here's mud in your eye jab at the feds, the proposed ordinance also mandates that "no city, county, state, or federal resources may be used to enforce laws against marijuana misdemeanors in the City of Columbus" and "no officer, prosecutor, county, state, or federal official may charge any person using county codes, state codes, or any federal codes involving marijuana misdemeanors if such violation occurs in the City of Columbus."
Fortunately, the initiative also includes a severability provision stating that if any one section is struck down by the courts -- as a direct attack on federal drug law enforcement would most likely be -- the rest of the ordinance remains in effect.
All of the above covers paraphernalia as well.
Schweikart and For A Better Ohio worked closely with members of the University of Ohio chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org), and he pointed to the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision as one of the key motivators of the initiative campaign. "We feel that the drug provision of the Higher Education Act is an atrocity on intellectual freedom," Schweikart told DRCNet. "We find it incredibly offensive that students should be losing their financial aid if they're caught with as little as a crumb of marijuana."
Schweikart and supporters also argue that Columbus residents who use marijuana should have a right to be left alone and that the ordinance will ease the plight of medical marijuana patients.
"Columbus is an ideal place for such an initiative," said Schweikart. "We can utilize the demographics of Columbus as a test market for the rest of the country, to send a message the time is now for marijuana policy reform."
Schweikart is optimistic about the initiative's chances, he told DRCNet, citing a poll done this week by local NBC affiliate WCMH-TV. That poll found 76% in favor of a question that read, "Do you favor legalizing marijuana in small amounts?," according to Schweikart.
He is also counting on typically low voter turnout for city elections. "We can pull a victory without serious money, because we are going to rock the vote," he vowed. "We're aggressively registering people on campuses. At least half the students who go to school here aren't registered here. If we can get the students to register and get them to vote, we've got a good chance."
Schweikart and friends now enter a more serious phase of the campaign. With the signatures on the verge of being approved, opponents are emerging to take "pot-shots" at the ordinance and its sponsors. "They want to make marijuana legal," claimed Paul Coleman, head of the city's oldest drug and alcohol treatment center. "Should the matter be certified for the ballot, I think the debate and the discussions about that will be healthy. Voters will reject it and they will reject it for good reasons," he told the Columbus Dispatch.