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Marijuana legalization in Ohio force law enforcement to adapt drug enforcement tactics

Marijuana grows in the home of two medical marijuana patients in Medford, Ore.
Jeff Barnard
Marijuana grows in the home of two medical marijuana patients in Medford, Ore.

Law enforcement agencies in Ohio are working to figure out how legal marijuana impacts how they do their job.

For decades, police developed tactics to enforce laws outlawing marijuana possession and cultivation in Ohio. Now consumption is legal and lawmakers are mulling giving licenses to medical marijuana dispensaries to start selling recreational weed in June.

Central Ohio Drug Enforcement Team Commander Kris Kimble said the biggest impact so far is that police are retiring K-9s trained to sniff marijuana. While their noses can track other drugs, they are still trained to signal when they notice marijuana.

He said this is an issue because the dogs are expensive to train, sometimes costing up to $10,000.

"All of our canines, all the ones that are sniffing marijuana, are getting phased out. We're just not using those canines anymore within our task force anyway," Kimble said.

Like Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine did months ago, Kimble said a black market for weed could become a problem.

"In the states where it did become recreational, talking about Michigan, Colorado, wherever you want to talk about, the black market was huge. It flooded Ohio. We were stopping people on a regular weekly basis with loads of black market marijuana in their car," Kimble said.

Franklin County Prosecutor Deputy Chief Legal Counsel Anthony Pierson said tactics will have to change to get other illegal drugs off the streets.

"Before, an officer could pull over a car for a traffic violation. They smell marijuana in the vehicle. That would give them probable cause to search that vehicle and maybe find a lot of other illegal substances, whether it's a gun, dead body in the trunk or drugs. Now, that will be eliminated if it's in fact legal," Pierson said.

But, Pierson said he is confident the agencies in his county are working to adapt.

"I think it will be smart to look at other jurisdictions who have passed — such as Illinois and others — recreational use type of states, and see how they handle that. And I believe our law enforcement partners have done that," Pierson said.

Pierson agreed with Kimble on worries about a black market. But he said that is something that should be expected.

"When there's regulation, there's always a room for a black market. And the more regulation, the more probability that there will be a black market that emerges with respect to that particular item," Pierson said.

There are over a dozen medical marijuana dispensaries in central Ohio and over 100 in the state. All of them could be eligible to get a recreational marijuana license once the state starts distributing them.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.