The backward, half-baked way in which Ohio has ventured into liberalized marijuana laws left would-be patients waiting years for relief while the state fumbled through a complicated process for choosing growers.

Medical marijuana was supposed to be available to patients by Sept. 8 of last year, but the first dispensary didn’t open until January.

The slow start yielded only a few providers, which has kept prices too high for many people and caused some to keep buying marijuana illegally.

And now, the General Assembly’s move in July to legalize hemp, a less-potent version of the cannabis plant, brings more unanticipated consequences: Marijuana-possession cases will be harder to try and an entire generation of drug-sniffing police dogs may be out of work.

The Ohio Highway Patrol and the Columbus Division of Police announced recently that they’re suspending marijuana-detection training for new police dogs because, with the legalization of hemp, that skill has become a law-enforcement liability.

The problem is that marijuana and hemp smell the same and only one of them now is illegal. If a dog indicates that he smells something, officers can’t be sure he’s smelling something illegal and thus a court may conclude they didn’t have probable cause to conduct a search.

Trainers can start omitting cannabis from the repertoire of dogs trained henceforth, but those already trained can’t be untaught to sniff for it.

Meanwhile, prosecutors trying to convict someone of marijuana possession are hamstrung, because the substance a defendant possesses may be pot (illegal) or it may be hemp (legal), and current crime labs aren’t equipped to measure chemical content precisely enough to make the determination.

Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein cited the hemp problem in announcing Aug. 7 that the city no longer will prosecute any misdemeanor cases of pot possession. City council already had acted weeks before to lower the penalties for possession drastically, to a $10 fine for having up to 100 grams and $25 for 100 to 200 grams.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost wasn’t impressed, declaring, "It’s unfortunate that Columbus has decided to create an island within Franklin County where the general laws of the state of Ohio no longer apply."

On Tuesday, Yost announced that he’ll help local police departments with marijuana-trafficking (not possession) cases by making some money available to pay private labs for the testing.

Yost hopes to have labs at the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation upgraded for cannabis testing by early next year. Communities around the state also are looking to upgrade local crime labs, but local officials may want to think hard about the expense.

In a memo instructing Columbus police officers to limit searches based on suspicion of marijuana alone, interim Police Chief Thomas Quinlan pointed out that the equipment needed for precise THC testing costs $250,000.

Yost is correct in reminding law-enforcement agencies that recreational marijuana still is illegal in Ohio, but the ground is shifting; 11 states have legalized it and another 20 allow broad medical use.

Meanwhile, because federal law for decades has inhibited study of marijuana, too little is known about its health and social effects, even as use is increasing. Public dollars would be better spent learning about and preparing for its impact than on expensive testing equipment that is likely to become irrelevant.

— Columbus Dispatch