Like it or not, Ohio’s cannabis laws are creeping toward legalization. Lawmakers should stop burying their heads in the sand with the hope that it will never happen.

If not, never may be here sooner than they think.

Ohio already has a limited medical marijuana program, and recently legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp. Those steps have been common precursors in states which have decriminalized marijuana or made it legal.

Since July 30, when Gov. Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 57, which legalized hemp and the various products made from its active ingredient CBD (cannabidiol), officials have been busy quashing the idea that the legislation also legalized marijuana.

As Attorney General Dave Yost reminded those who believe otherwise last week, marijuana is still illegal today on the recreational level.

Senate Bill 57 merely allows the state to start a hemp program that is in line with Congress’ 2018 Farm Bill, which opened the door by distinguishing hemp from marijuana in the drug laws. The Ohio Department of Agriculture must still work out rules before farmers can start planting hemp.

Hemp and marijuana are related, but hemp contains far less THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive compound in pot. But hemp does have large amounts of CBD, a compound that can be used to treat a wide variety of health concerns. CBD is now legal in Ohio and widely sold.

On the other hand, hemp has thrown a wrench into the enforcement of marijuana laws.

One problem is trained drug dogs can’t tell the difference between illegal pot and legal hemp, since both weeds smell the same. As a result, both the Ohio Highway Patrol and Columbus police have suspended marijuana-detection training for new police dogs.

In Columbus, even if a canine detects hemp or marijuana, police have been instructed not to search a vehicle, other property or a person unless there are other factors that would give them probable cause to search. That’s on advice from the city’s legal counsel, to make sure the police department doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Another new obstacle is drug testing. Hemp’s legalization means law enforcement must now quantify the amount of THC in suspected marijuana in order to prosecute offenders.

State law defines hemp as including any cannabis products made up of 0.3 percent THC or less. More than that and the substance is considered illegal.

Because small police departments don’t have sophisticated testing equipment, Yost’s office has begun offering funding to help those agencies pay private laboratories to test THC levels of confiscated marijuana until the state can offer that testing later this year. Each test costs $600, meaning only large seizures of pot will likely lead to charges.

Ohio was the 47th state to legalize hemp. The state’s medical marijuana program is still slow to develop three years after it was approved. We suspect lawmakers will also drag their feet when it comes time to deal with recreational marijuana.

That may slow, but won’t stop, legalization. Clearly the clock is ticking. Absent legislation from Columbus, a ballot initiative is likely to emerge. Then it will be up to voters.

Before that happens, lawmakers should study the trials and tribulations of states which are moving or have already moved to full legalization. Then, they could craft a reasonable law based on best practices. That’s how Ohio should proceed.

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