COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – President Joe Biden’s executive order encouraging governors to erase state-level marijuana convictions might fall on deaf ears in Ohio.
After signing an executive order Thursday to pardon about 6,500 people federally convicted of possessing marijuana, Biden urged governors – including Ohio’s Mike DeWine – to extend the same clemency to those found guilty of marijuana possession at the state level. But given Republican lawmakers’ past positions on marijuana and a lack of pardoning power held by DeWine, the odds aren’t in the president’s favor.
“Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” Biden said in a statement.
Of the 7 million people living in Ohio, only about 3% have been arrested for a marijuana offense at the state level, according to Doug Berman, executive director of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.
That number narrows even further when it comes to guilty verdicts, with only 0.5% of the population, or about 40,000 people, being convicted of low-level marijuana possession, Berman said.
“If you traffic marijuana, you’re not getting the benefit of this pardon. It is only people convicted of federal marijuana possession, and that’s a pretty small group,” he said. “Most marijuana cases are at the state level – those aren’t directly affected. But that got to Part 2 of what Biden did, which is he made a call to governors around the country to do the same thing.”
DeWine spokesperson Dan Tierney said in an email that the governor doesn’t have authority under Ohio law to issue blanket pardons. Tierney said each Ohioan must individually apply for a pardon but did not indicate whether DeWine would grant those pardons.
“My sense is, especially because obviously, it’s a Democratic president making this call to governors, that Democratic governors, especially in states that have done some form of reform may be very open to moving forward with pardons,” Berman said. “In red states, Republican governors – our own Governor DeWine remains to be seen.”
It’s rare for Ohioans to spend time in prison for marijuana possession, Tierney said. If the amount is less than 100 grams, he said there’s no threat of jail or prison time. And a judge can only consider jail or probation when possession reaches a kilogram.
Republican state lawmakers have generally opposed attempts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, focusing their efforts instead on improving Ohio’s medical marijuana program that launched in 2016.
DeWine received an “F” grade from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in 2020 and has not changed his position “despite the recent enactment of legalization in nearby states,” according to the group’s website.
“It would really be a mistake for Ohio, by legislation, to say that marijuana for adults is just OK,” DeWine told the Statehouse News Bureau in 2020.
At least two bills that would legalize the drug recreationally are pending in the Ohio Statehouse, the Republican-sponsored House Bill 498 and Democrat-sponsored House Bill 382. Neither proposals has yet to receive a vote, but that could change once the legislature returns to session one week after the Nov. 8 election.
A spokesperson for Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima), who opposes the recreational legalization of the drug, told NBC4 in April he doesn’t think the coalition has sufficient support from the General Assembly’s GOP-supermajority.
If recreational marijuana dies in the legislature, Ohioans are poised to vote on a November 2023 ballot initiative to determine whether to legalize and levy a tax on the drug, according to Tom Haren, a Cleveland attorney and spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.
Most Ohioans, or 60%, said they supported legalizing recreational use of marijuana in a Siena College poll that surveyed nearly 700 likely voters from Sept. 18 to 22. Thirty-seven percent of respondents opposed, and 3% did not know or refused to answer.
“The vast majority of polling across the country makes it clear that prohibition is going to end, and it should end – it’s bad policy,” Haren told NBC4 in April. “Polling gets more and more favorable. If it’s on the ballot, it will pass.”
It’s unclear whether DeWine’s office will heed Biden’s advice when reviewing Ohio’s pardon applications, but Berman said the governor’s track record on expediting pardons in Ohio has been strong.
“He fully understands the idea that President Biden was putting forward – that people who had a long-ago conviction, have gotten on with a law-abiding life, they ought not deal with all of these collateral consequences that come with an old conviction if they’re proven themselves to be rehabilitated and contributing to their community,” Berman said.
NBC4’s Cierra Johnson contributed to this report.