Kent initiative to decriminalize recreational marijuana use fails by four signatures

Image of two men in front of a large green bus in downtown Kent
Sensible Movement Coalition founder Bill Schmitt (right) and Kent resident Ferris Bintz worked with the CannaBus at the Kent Blues Fest to build momentum toward decriminalization. Submitted photo

A ballot initiative to decriminalize up to 200 grams (7.05 oz) of marjuana in the city of Kent failed by four signatures, the Portage County Board of Elections determined on Sept. 8.

In order for the initiative to appear on the November ballot, Franklin Township resident Mike Fricke and his five team members needed to gather 806 valid signatures: registered voters who live in Kent and whose address matches the address on file. They got 802, said Terrie Nielsen, deputy director of the Portage County Board of Elections.

“I guess you can’t fail if you don’t try,” said Fricke, a former Libertarian ticket candidate for U.S. Congress. “I guess we’re going to go for November 2022. I’m definitely committed to getting it on the ballot.”

Fricke added they would also challenge the election board’s invalidation of some of the signatures.

Under Kent law, possession of under 100 grams of marijuana constitutes a minor misdemeanor, with a maximum fine of $150. Possession of 100-199 grams is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, with penalties of up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine. Possession of 200-1,999 grams is a fifth-degree felony with potential prison time of six to 12 months and a fine of up $2,500, said Lt. Michael Lewis of the Kent Police Department.

Prosecutors and courts may handle individual cases differently.

“Fines and jail time may be suspended provided there are no similar offenses within a certain period of time,” Lewis said. “Subsequent offenses can be more severe and suspended time from previous violations can also be imposed.”

Also important is how the marijuana is packaged. If a person is found to have 50 grams in one baggie and it looks like it was packaged for personal use, the person is looking at a minor misdemeanor, which is not an arrestable offense, Lewis said. However, if the same quantity is split into multiple baggies which could easily be sold, the charge ratchets up to drug trafficking, which is a felony, he said.

This ballot initiative would not have addressed felony crimes.

“We are trying to decriminalize misdemeanor amounts of marijuana and just trying to let the police force utilize their time and money on more important issues than just simple marijuana possession,” said Bill Schmitt, founder of the Sensible Movement Coalition. The coalition is dedicated to staging initiatives to overturn marijuana laws throughout Ohio and supported Fricke’s ballot push.

Fricke does not see such marijuana use as a crime.

“Government exists to protect the rights of its citizens,” he said. “I really don’t see the difference between marijuana and tomatoes. I think you should be able to grow both in your front yard.”

Kent City Council could still decriminalize small amounts of marijuana by passing an ordinance. It’s a thought, said council member Gwen Rosenburg.

She would like council to discuss decriminalizing marjuana and would support taking the next step: codifying decriminalization in local law. However, state laws would still exist, so that’s where the real work would be, she cautioned. Local ordinances could lead to a patchwork of laws where the difference between recreational use and a criminal offense is a line on a map.

Council member Jack Amrhein also advises careful footing.

“I think this is something that needs to be voted on by the community. I don’t feel comfortable voting on it on behalf of the city of Kent. There are things that benefit Kent, and I’m not sure this is one of them,” he said.

If Fricke is successful in challenging the Board of Elections’ signature count, city and state officials would be powerless, Schmitt said.

Sensible Movement Coalition has already been successful in 22 of 26 ballot initiatives in Ohio, including in the Village of Windham in 2018. Schmitt plans to return to Garrettsville, where voters rejected a similar initiative by 41 votes in that same year.

“There’s a thing called separation of powers in the United States Constitution. We could elect the people into office to change the laws in one tower of power, and we also can change the laws in our tower of power. We can’t stop them. They can’t stop us,” he said.

Fricke’s interest was sparked when the issue of decriminalization came up during the 2019 Libertarian Party of Ohio Convention. He describes himself as a campaign manager for Sensible Kent, which he says operates under Schmitt’s coalition. Fricke garnered 8,206 votes in his Libertarian run for U.S. Congress last November. The ballot initiative fit right in.

“This is a signature libertarian issue and I feel strongly about it as well,” he said. “Personal freedom is one of the key parts of libertarian philosophy. The government exists to protect our personal freedoms and they’ve strayed away from that.”

Correction: A previous version of this story  incorrectly reported that a valid signature was defined as registered voters who live in Kent and voted in the last gubernatorial election. According to the Board of Elections, when the BOE is determining whether a person’s signature is valid, they must be registered to vote at the address they provided when they registered to vote and their signature must match the signature on their voter registration or other voting documents the BOE maintains. In this particular initiative petition, the BOE does not look at the voter’s voting history, so whether or not they voted in the last gubernatorial election is irrelevant. The 806 signatures needed for the petition initiative to be successful represents 10% of the Kent voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election.