Marijuana decriminalization makes it to Kent ballots for November

Lynn Vandrasik Reporter

Kent voters will have the option to decriminalize misdemeanor marijuana possession this November.

Proposed by Sensible Kent, a branch of the Sensible Movement Coalition, the initiative began as a petition, which circulated in Kent last spring. If the ballot measure passes, Kent will add an amendment to its charter decreeing possession of less than 200 grams of marijuana will carry no fines or court costs.

While the Kent city council could have put the amendment to ballot at the May primary elections, Councilwoman Tracy Wallach instead made a motion to move the measure to November. Primary elections generally have lower voter turnout than November general elections.

“I just think it’s a good way to get the young people to the ballot box,” Wallach said.

Mike Fricke, Sensible Kent’s campaign manager, agreed with the decision.

“It’s true,” Fricke said. “In fact, the marijuana initiatives have had a little bit of a history of bringing out voters.” 

The Sensible Movement began in Toledo in 2015, where it passed a similar charter amendment. Since then, many cities in the state have adopted decriminalization, including Cincinnati, Dayton and Cleveland.

In December, Ohio’s Senate passed a bill significantly expanding the state’s medical marijuana program, allowing the drug to be recommended for autism spectrum disorder and migraines, among other conditions.

A petition advocating for marijuana to be regulated similarly to alcohol has also reached enough signatures to find itself in front of Ohio’s General Assembly. Once this occurs, the petitioners will likely be told to acquire more signatures, so the item can appear on the statewide ballot in November.

If Fricke’s initiative passes, Kent would be the second municipality in Portage County to remove penalties for possession. Windham was first in 2018, while nearby Garretsville rejected the same proposal.

“Typically, we don’t campaign once it gets on the ballot; we think it kind of sells itself,” Fricke said.

As in Garrettsville, an aggressive campaign against decriminalization sometimes succeeds in rejecting the change. While Fricke doesn’t think this is likely in Kent, due in part to Wallach’s push to draw out student voters, he does not rule out the possibility.

Sensible Kent’s petition had a difficult time reaching this point, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also due to difficulties with Portage County’s Board of Elections. The organization’s first petition, which began circulating on May 4, was cut down from 2000 signatures to 400 when vetted for legitimate signatures. A signature only qualifies when signed by a permanent resident of Kent, a requirement which many students do not meet.

Fricke and his organization were approved to circulate the petition again and given a requirement of806 valid signatures. When brought before the board again, the initiative was struck a major blow; the board found only 802 signatures acceptable.

Sensible Kent challenged the board’s invalidation of many of the signatures, alleging that a counting error had occurred. After a bipartisan recount, the board reported the petition had 815 valid signatures, enough to put the amendment before the Kent city council.

Fricke is hopeful Kent’s charter amendment, if passed, will be one of the last such changes in the state. Citing the expansion of the medical marijuana program and the success of the regulation reform campaign, he hopes Ohio’s government will soon move on to state-wide legislation. 

“Typically, Republicans don’t want marijuana initiatives on the ballot, because it hurts their poll numbers,” Fricke said. “So I would expect to see that the state will decriminalize and legalize in some form by November.”

Lynn Vandrasik is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected].