FILE - OH Dave Yost 8-13029

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost speaks at a news conference Aug. 13, 2019.

A new program aims to help law enforcement agencies across Ohio to differentiate between hemp and marijuana following a new state law that could make it harder to prosecute some possession cases.

State lawmakers passed and Gov. Mike DeWine subsequently signed into law Senate Bill 57 legalizing the growing and selling of industrial hemp as long as it has THC levels below 0.3 percent. However, authorities can no longer rely on traditional techniques such as microscopic examination and chemical color testing to verify the presence of THC.

Testing for the quantity of THC is not readily available at most crime labs, and the state’s labs cannot conduct the tests until after the new year. Until then, officials must send suspected marijuana to an accredited laboratory capable of quantifying THC, prompting Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to announce the new Major Marijuana Trafficking Grant Program.

“The real issue is not the guy that’s got a little baggy in the dashboard of his car or in the stashbox at home,” Yost said at a news conference Tuesday. “The real problem is the traffickers, the people that are bringing marijuana illegally in large quantities into our communities.”

Through the program, Yost’s office will provide up to $50,000 to fund law enforcement agencies in the Buckeye State that want to send suspected marijuana to a lab to test felony weight marijuana that qualifies a defendant for a prison term and a trafficking charge. Agencies can also test marijuana at a private lab at their own cost.

“Law enforcement needs to go on,” Yost said. “Our law is very clear, and marijuana traffickers are not welcome in Ohio, but we’re going to support local jurisdictions in prosecuting them and enforcing the law. So, that’s the workaround in the short term.”

As part of House Bill 166, lawmakers provided funding for the purchase of quantitative testing instruments. The devices have been placed in Bureau of Criminal Investigation laboratories in Richfield and London, but are not yet operational; the state plans to add a third machine to the laboratory in Bowling Green.

BCI is currently validating instruments, developing methodologies and creating procedures for the quantitative testing of THC content. Officials say BCI should be ready to receive evidence starting early next year.

Because of the new law, the Columbus City Attorney’s Office said it will no longer prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession cases, Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein said this week. While the office will dismiss all marijuana possession charges, the office will not dismiss other accompanying charges unless there is a separate and distinct reason to do so, the office said.

The Center Square Contributor