Marijuana plants were found on properties across the county Tuesday as members of law enforcement took part in the annual task of looking for needles in a very large haystack.

This year's "eradication day," in which members of law enforcement fly over properties in a helicopter looking for plants, occurred during a time when a legal loophole has resulted in a temporary stall on the state bringing charges against people in marijuana cases.

When the state legalized hemp, which is defined as having less than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive ingredient THC, it resulted in a legal conundrum of sorts.

The state's crime labs are only equipped to detect the presence of THC and not the amount, meaning that hemp's psychoactive and illegal relative marijuana cannot currently be distinguished in state labs from legal hemp.

County Prosecutor Nicholas Iarocci said the state crime labs will be updated at some point in the future. The Attorney General's office has notified local officials about the issue, he said.

"In the meantime we have to suspend our enforcement of marijuana laws," Iarocci said.

One needs to have possession of a large amount of marijuana in order to even possibly face felony level charges, and under current law possession of less than 100 grams amounts to a minor misdemeanor, Iarocci said. The state could still pursue cases against those in possession of felony-level amounts, he said, although that would require paying for tests through private labs.

"If you're in the felony range we have a six year statute of limitations," Iarocci said. "We've got all kinds of time if we really wanted to go after somebody."

Although Iarocci said the county's law enforcement aren't generally even focused solely on marijuana investigations, he said busts of grow operations can lead to investigations that result in harder drugs being taken off the streets. 

"Let's be honest, where there is marijuana there is cocaine," Iarocci said. "Where there's marijuana there is meth. Where there's marijuana there's heroin. Marijuana gets us to the other drugs, or it's one of the things that gets us to bigger things."

This year 68 plants were found and it marked the first time that not a single plant was found in a corn field, according to Ashtabula County Sheriff's Office Det.Greg Leonhard, commander of the Crime Enforcement Agency of Ashtabula County.

The majority of plants were found near homes in Ashtabula, Plymouth and Austinburg townships and the city of Ashtabula, Leonhard said.

"Talking to agents from BCI who do this throughout most of the summer, said this has been a trend across much of the state," Leonhard said.

Funds for the operation come from the federal government to the state level and are then distributed to the counties through the Bureau of Criminal Identification, Leonhard said. Leonhard referred questions about the cost of the flyover operation to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification.

The DEA provided through grants to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification $400,000 for the 2019 eradication program, according to a BCI spokesperson.
This amount is broken down into $300,000 for the cost of aircraft, $63,000 for any overtime costs and $37,000 for equipment and supplies. A breakdown of dollars specific to Ashtabula County was not available.

The federal government spends anywhere from $14 million to $18 million annually across the nation on such operations and it provides dollars to nearly 130 state and local agencies under the DEA cannabis eradication program, according to the Washington Post. 

In 2018 more than 22,000 plants, or 440 pounds, were seized from more than 570 outdoor grow sites in Ohio resulting in 93 arrests, according to DEA statistics. Nationwide in 2018 there were more than 2.2 million plants uprooted from nearly 3,850 grow sites.

Yet the statistics and spending don't always yield results. In 2015 the state of Utah received $73,000 for such operations and not a single plant was found, a Washington Post article states.

Leonhard acknowledged that there will come a day that law enforcement no longer conducts such operations because times have changed and more and more places have legalized marijuana. However, he said he respectfully disagrees with those in favor of marijuana legalization or those who think taxpayer dollars shouldn't be spent on the eradication program in places where it remains illegal.

While Leonhard said he thinks there may be a benefit to medical marijuana legalization, he said society in 10 to 15 years after an all out legalization would regret such a decision.

"More people will be killed on the highways and more people will suffer from addictions and need treatment," Leonhard said. "It's going to cost us more in other areas than we're ever going to bring in."

The legalization of hemp was poorly thought out with no regard to the implication on prosecution of marijuana cases, Leonhard said.

Leonhard said there will be no charges brought against anyone in relation to the plants found Tuesday. This is something he said is related to not only the issue with the hemp law, but also to a general trend in law enforcement across the state of not placing as much emphasis on pursuing criminal charges in marijuana cases.

"There were multiple opportunities where we could have charged somebody," Leonhard said. "The hemp ruling plays a role on that, but there were some people who were borderline felony three weight that we're not going to charge. If we had felony one or two weight we probably would have referred it to the prosecutor." 

The county uses fuel to ignite the plants in piles outdoors and burns everything that was seized in undisclosed locations.

Both Leonhard and Iarocci said county law enforcement does not devote a substantial amount of time to marijuana-related investigations, choosing to instead focus on investigations into drugs such as meth, heroin and cocaine.

This story was updated to include comment from Ohio BCI on funds issued through DEA grants in 2019.

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