A federal court on Wednesday ruled that a lawsuit from Ohio marijuana activists concerning proposed decriminalization measures they wanted to place on local 2020 ballots across the state could not proceed despite their repeated attempts to seek petitioning relief amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The case before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit proved unsuccessful, with judges deciding that the challenge was no longer relevant because last year’s election has passed and the case was therefore moot.
“Without a time machine, we cannot go back and place plaintiffs’ initiatives on the 2020 ballot,” the panel said, referring to the 2020 lawsuit from the Sensible Movement Coalition (SMC) that sought to force officials to allow electronic signature gathering and make other changes to rules to accommodate the decriminalization campaigns in the early part of the pandemic.
A federal judge did rule in the group’s favor last year, but the appellate court subsequently shot it down. The U.S. Supreme Court also declined to take up the case following an appeal.
Because SMC’s complaint was directly connected with the 2020 election, the appellate judges said the plaintiffs can’t “get any of the relief they asked for.”
“We need not restate the facts at length,” they said. “The short of it is this: Plaintiffs are three Ohio voters. They regularly circulate petitions to get initiatives on local and statewide ballots. For the 2020 election cycle, plaintiffs hoped to place initiatives on municipal ballots to decriminalize marijuana.”
“Plaintiffs sought specific relief. They challenged Ohio’s ballot-access laws as applied to the unique circumstances existing during the 2020 election,” the judges wrote. “But because of intervening events—the passing of the election and the rescission of Ohio’s stay-at-home orders and emergency declaration—we cannot give plaintiffs what they ask for.”
SMC has pushed back against the notion that its case is irrelevant just because the 2020 has election passed. The group said that it could’ve continued to collect signatures between March and July to qualify the initiatives for this year’s election if the court has approved the alternative petitioning process.
But the court contended that “even if that’s true, this is the first time plaintiffs are saying so,” and so they would not entertain the argument.
Finally, activists argued that the same pandemic-related circumstances that necessitated electronic petitioning and the other changes they requested—included deadline extensions and reduced signature requirements—may well apply in 2021, as the health crisis is not over. The judges said flatly that “this speculation does not get the job done,” as Law 360 first reported.
“Ohioans had to make sacrifices as the state responded to COVID-19. We appreciate the difficulties the virus posed to plaintiffs’ efforts to gather signatures for their initiatives. But the event for which plaintiffs sought relief has passed. So their claims are now moot. We affirm the district court’s dismissal of their complaint.”
SMC has been behind more than a dozen successful decriminalization initiatives, and they’re actively working to place additional reform measures before voters at the local level this year.
Another group of Ohio marijuana activists have a separate plan to legalize cannabis in the state as lawmakers pursue reform legislation. The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) on Tuesday announced a new effort to implore legislators to enact the policy change.
The group submitted the requisite 1,000 signatures to the Ohio attorney general’s office on Tuesday. Officials now have 10 days to review the summary and text to ensure that it is “fair and truthful” and approve it for circulation. Several existing medical cannabis businesses are backing the measure.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Casey Weinstein (D) recently announced he will be sponsoring legislation alongside Rep. Terrence Upchurch (D) this session that would legalize and regulate marijuana in the state. It would mark the first time such a proposal to allow recreational cannabis commerce has been introduced in the legislature
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“Ohioans and Americans are way out ahead on this issue, and the comfort level with first decriminalization and medical marijuana and then full legalization is just so far beyond where legislators are,” Weinstein told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview about his bill. “This is an effort to close that gap and catch up.”
Weinstein’s bill would would legalize possession of up to five ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older and allow them to cultivate up to 12 plants for personal use. It will also include provisions to expunge prior convictions for possession and cultivation activities that are being made legal under the measure.
The separate proposed law that CTRMLA is pushing would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.
It’s a notable departure from the failed 2015 legalization ballot initiative, which faced criticism from advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to place it before voters.
Read the text of the court’s ruling on the Ohio marijuana case below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.