As Ohio’s marijuana laws evolve, lives and jobs do too

by Taylor Patterson

Laws regulating marijuana use in the United States are only as old as one lifetime. The “Marihuana Tax Act” was passed 82 years ago, making possession of marijuana — except for medical or industrial use — illegal, and placing a large excise tax on the substance. 

By 1970, marijuana had become a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning the federal government classified it as highly addictive and not medically valuable. 

However, in 1975, Ohio made possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana a minor misdemeanor — an offense without jail time and a maximum fine of $150 — the equivalent of running a red light or failing to use a turn signal.

And in the decades since, support for the drug is on the rise. During the 2018 midterms, 55% of Ohio voters supported the idea of a medical dispensary opening in their neighborhood, a Cincinnati Enquirer poll found. Though Ohio isn’t fully behind recreational legalization yet — in 2015, Ohio voters rejected full legalization of marijuana by a 2-to-1 margin — medical use has become a widely accepted form of treatment. 

Across the country, 33 states have legalized marijuana for medical use. Ten of those states now allow recreational use. 

Ohio Governor John Kasich signed House Bill 523 in May 2016, which legalized medical marijuana in the state. By Sept. 2018, patients who met the qualifying conditions were able to get a medical card. In mid-January, dispensaries began popping up across the state. 

The way the community interacts with marijuana continues to change with the laws. 

Kate Nelson 

Green Leaf Apothecaries, Gardens and Therapeutics

It was too late for Kate Nelson’s grandmother by the time Kasich signed House Bill 523. During Nelson’s undergraduate studies at The University of Akron, her grandmother was diagnosed with stage four bone cancer. Their family knew there wasn’t any hope of complete recovery, but they searched for options to alleviate her sleepless nights and lack of appetite. 

Nelson asked their doctor about medical marijuana, something she had been researching in her political science and criminal justice reform courses. It became clear it didn’t matter if marijuana could alleviate her grandmother’s pain — the practice was illegal in Ohio. The doctors recommended opiates for pain relief instead.

“There were so many things that we heard medical marijuana could help,” Nelson says, “but we never got the chance to find out.” 

Nelson only felt more attached to these issues after her grandmother’s passing. As she graduated from Akron and Ohio legalized medical marijuana, Nelson and her husband decided to utilize their knowledge and enter the marijuana cultivation business. This is how they met the CEO and CFO of The Botanist, which has dispensaries scattered along the East Coast. 

The Botanist applied for a dispensary and cultivator license to gain a spot in Ohio’s medicinal market. They gained one of the state’s 16 level-one cultivation licenses, as well as one of 56 dispensary licenses, which meant they were able to grow marijuana and open up a shop. 

Nelson became the chief operating officer of Green Leaf Apothecaries, Gardens and Therapeutics and licensed The Botanist brand to open five locations across Ohio. 

Some states with medical marijuana are “wink, wink, medical,” Nelson says — meaning that it’s easy to get a medical card if a patient says they have a condition that’s difficult to verify, like insomnia. Ohio’s program, on the other hand, “is something that is operated very seriously in that these are patients that have really been suffering for a long time, their lives are really negatively impacted by the symptoms,” Nelson says. Only patients whose conditions fall under the list of qualifying conditions can get a medical marijuana card in Ohio.

One afternoon, Nelson said, a woman rushed into the dispensary with tears streaming down her face from pain. She desperately told Nelson that she was suicidal, no medications seemed to help — and she turned to medical marijuana as a last option. Days later, she called their shop, just as emotional as she was before, to tell Nelson that she had gotten her first-ever full night’s sleep. 

“This changes people’s lives. No matter how much I read about it in advance, there is nothing like the feeling of actually seeing someone going from so distraught to having a different outlook on life,” Nelson says. 

Community impact is important to Nelson, and she wants The Botanist to be more than just a place to purchase marijuana.“There are thousands of patients out there that may not even know there is a program that exists or how to become a patient,” Nelson says. “So the more people we share that information with, the more it becomes a part of that conversation and marijuana becomes normalized rather than just this taboo subject.” 

Medical marijuana isn’t a fit for every patient. There are barriers for many, since it’s an all-cash business without any medical insurance coverage options.  

Nelson isn’t saying that marijuana is a fix-all, but it’s another option in addition to pain medications and opiates. 

“I went through something when my grandmother passed away, I was frustrated that there was an alternative out there that we didn’t have access to,” she says. “It’s not something we are saying can help everyone. But knowing that there is an alternative that you can try and find out if its going to help, that is really rewarding.”

Walter Mathis

Ohio Organizing Collaborative 

Walter Mathis sits in the back corner of the Mr. Hero on South Arlington Street, the afternoon sun draped across tater tots on the wooden table. He lifts his hand and points at the window beside him.

“I can stand outside here and smoke a blunt all day, and nine time out of 10 police will ride past and keep going. But if they so choose, because I’m in a certain neighborhood or they just feel like they wanna mess with somebody, they can make my life very hard.” 

Mathis rubs the stubble on his chin. “You know if you get caught with an opiate or narcotic that you’re for sure going to jail,” he says. “With marijuana, unless it’s a trafficking case, it’s kind of up to the officer that has stopped you and his discretion.” 

Mathis, 39, was raised in Akron. He’s been involved with the justice system here and in other Ohio cities over drugs more than once. Mathis knows how the judicial system works from a civilian’s perspective — as do many people close to him. He can tell you story after story about friends and family who have tangled with the law because of marijuana. 

Once, he paid over $1,000 to reinstate his license after an officer found a plastic bag of pot during a traffic stop. But during another stop, he tried to throw a blunt out of the car, and it got caught between Mathis’ door and window. When that officer approached his vehicle, he inhaled and said, “Make sure to get that blinker fixed. Enjoy your evening.” 

Mathis worked with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative to rally support for Issue 1, which was on the midterm ballot in November 2018. The measure was designed to focus state resources on rehabilitating drug abusers rather than incarcerating them. 

Only 37% of Ohioans voted in favor of the bill. But if it had passed, Issue 1 would have reduced the number of people in state prison for nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession and non-criminal probation violations. All previous drug possession charges would’ve been decreased to minor misdemeanors instead of felonies. And the state would’ve used funds saved on imprisonment for rehabilitation, probation and crime victim programs. 

The criminalization of marijuana has been a nuisance, Mathis says. He doesn’t see a problem with recreational use of the drug, and the people around him share the same sentiment. 

Mathis compares marijuana to alcohol. “It’s all about a person’s level of control. Almost all alcoholics are worse than the people I know who smoke pot,” he says. “If you go to a low-income neighborhood, there are liquor stores in every section. Ever seen an alcoholic detox? It’s just as bad as watching someone on narcotics detox.” 

Mathis thinks if marijuana were fully legalized, citizens should be able to grow it themselves, rather than purchasing from dispensaries. It’s difficult for someone selling marijuana underground to break into the legal industry, he says. The state government not only regulates the drug itself, but who can sell it. 

“You’re still taking advantage of people. You don’t have commoners getting in on this,” Mathis said. “You got guys who’ve been growing it their whole life, and they won’t get a chance. You’ve labeled people as drug dealers behind the same thing you’re doing now. They could easily open up a shop, they already have the market, demand and product—but they’ll never get a shot.” 

Judge Jon Oldham

Presiding Judge of Akron Municipal Court’s Recovery Court 

The crowd stands, a woman in her 30s tucks her sandy hair behind an ear, her diamond earrings glinting under the courtroom light. Another man with a shaggy, frosted-white beard has on a worn red cotton t-shirt that hugs his belly. Three rows of wooden chairs are full with people who are mostly white; 81 percent of the people in this program are Caucasian. 

Akron launched its Drug Court program in 1995, and Judge Oldham began presiding over the court in 2015. Oldham says they refer to it as “Recovery Court” instead of “drug court” to avoid the stigma around drug abuse, and to make the program seem more approachable. 

Every Thursday, Judge Oldham begins the 9 am session with a different inspirational quote. The sentiment he chose for those attending court this morning: Don’t let your past mistakes hold you hostage from today, because all we ever have is now. 

Once the session begins, each person takes their turn at the podium. Their case worker tells Oldham all the strides they’ve made in staying clean. The judge or caseworker gifts sobriety chips to some. A few participants are upgraded to a new phase of the program. One even receives a Swenson’s gift card. 

People at the podium read letters to the crowd or proudly reveal they’d regained custody of kids. It always ends in applause. 

“The most important thing is that I come in and show compassion, and I remind them that we are all working together to build the foundation for a long-term recovery. We are all battling against the disease of addiction,” Oldham says. 

His presence is softer, kinder than some might expect a judge to be. His eyes flushed pink and swelled while talking about those who might be absent because they’d overdosed the night before. The atmosphere of his courtroom is encouraging. Most participants return to their seats with a grin, which comes as a surprise — because everyone here was brought together by struggle. 

Oldham said his participants don’t usually test positive for marijuana alone, but a combination of marijuana and other drugs.  The court says 64% of people enter recovery court with marijuana in their system, 50% test positive for opiates, 45% for methamphetamines, 16% for benzos, and 8% for other substances. 

Since Ohio legalized medical use, marijuana has created a grey area for Recovery Court. “When I boil it down, marijuana is similar to alcohol because alcohol is permissible, it’s recreational. But you’re not allowed to consume alcohol in drug court, so if a participant tests positive they are going to be sanctioned just as if they were using an opiate or methamphetamine,” Oldham says. “So marijuana likewise would not be permitted unless they have a medicinal prescription.”

There have been no guidelines from any organizations at the state or federal level addressed to courts for navigating this unknown territory, he said. 

“It’s very challenging, but I’m fortunate to be able to be in this position because it’s really a role in the court system where I see the direct impact I am making, along with the recovery court team,” Oldham says.

Lt. David Garro and Lt. Rick Edwards 

Akron Police Department Narcotics Unit (Garro) and retired Public Information Officer (Edwards)

Back in the ‘60s, one joint would be a felony charge, which usually ended in jail time. Today, if someone in Akron is stopped with 100 grams of marijuana, they will receive a minor misdemeanor. If officers find parapheniala, like rolling papers or pipes, it’s a third-degree misdemeanor, meaning the civilian could be searched or handcuffed. 

But Lieutenants Garro and Edwards said police aren’t typically searching for people smoking a blunt on their porch these days. 

“Mostly we contact people with marijuana as ancillary to the first reason we were there. It’s usually because someone is stumbling drunk down the street or they get pulled over for not stopping at a red light, we find out they’re driving without a license, then they get searched,” Garro says. 

Then, there’s officer discretion involved. “Not everyone needs a $100 ticket. Not everybody needs to go to jail for everything. It’s a case-by-case basis. If a warning [will] suffice, then that’s what you do.” 

Garro has been the narcotics lieutenant for three years and has worked for the Akron Police for more than 25 years. Before retiring in 2019, Edwards was the public information officer and community relations for 14 years and worked on the force for nearly 33.

“As fast as we arrest one person for dealing drugs or trafficking drugs, whether it’s fentanyl or cocaine or meth or even marijuana, two more people pop up in their place. So it’s a bit of a never-ending battle,” Garro says. 

The narcotics unit does marijuana trafficking investigations, but they’re mostly focused on meth, fentanyl, and heroin, Garro says: “That’s a bigger priority. People are dying from it.” 

Edwards and Garro know that most people don’t see smoking marijuana as a problem. It’s not the substance itself that poses a threat to the community, but the game of drug dealing. 

“Looking at the bigger picture, regardless of what people think, people are dying over this stuff and it ain’t because they’re smoking it. It’s the buying and selling that’s going on. What about the homicides and shootings?” Edwards says. “I can pull up shootings every day that are related to buying and selling drugs.” 

The two have a handful of stories about how dealing marijuana has cost lives. In 2012, Garro began working on one of his first homicides. A kid from outside the city came into Akron to buy marijuana. But when he arrived, he realized the marijuana was a rip-off. “The [dealers] said, ‘Here’s my gun, give me your $400,’ and they shot him in the heart and killed him,” Garro said. 

Garro and Edwards said these problems won’t go away even if recreational marijuana is legalized. States with full legalization still have underground sales, they say. So they don’t think medical legalization will change much in Ohio. 

“Wherever money is involved, people are going to be fighting for control of that money,” Garro says. 

Taylor Patterson is a recent graduate of Kent State University.

Photos by Taylor Patterson. Image at top of story: Mark Tabar. See his work on Instagram at @MarkTabar.