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Marijuana Advocates Raise Concern About Social Equity Problem In House-Passed Legalization Bill

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The House passage of a bill to federally legalize marijuana this month marked a historic step forward for reform advocates. Yet amid the celebration, there are increasing concerns about certain language that was added to the legislation at the last minute that activists say undermines their social equity goals.

Days before the floor vote, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act was amended in the form of a House Rules Committee Print. While the main thrust of the bill remained intact, including a tax to fund programs to repair the harms of the drug war, a provision was added requiring a federal permit to operate a “cannabis enterprise”—along with restrictions that could ban people with prior marijuana convictions from being eligible.

That runs counter to the principles of social equity that advocates have been pushing for, arguing that it’s not enough to simply end prohibition and that communities most impacted by the enforcement of the war on drugs need to be specifically uplifted in the newly legal market.

There are some nuances to the language, but in general what it says is that, under federal regulations, a permit must be issued in order for certain marijuana businesses to operate. There are a series of considerations that go into a permit approval, but the one advocates view as the most problematic states that it can be suspended or revoked if a person has a past or current legal proceeding related to a felony violation of any state or federal cannabis law.

That would raise questions about their ability to “maintain operations in compliance with this chapter,” the text of the bill says.

It would not be an automatic revocation, however, as the government would need to “issue an order, stating the facts charged, citing such person to show cause why their permit should not be suspended or revoked.” Then a hearing would be held to determine in the permit holder can show “cause why their permit should not be suspended or revoked.”

Read the language in question below:

SEC. 5923. PERMIT.
(a) Issuance.—A person shall not engage in business as a cannabis enterprise without a permit to engage in such business. Such permit, conditioned upon compliance with this chapter and regulations issued thereunder, shall be issued in such form and in such manner as the Secretary shall by regulation prescribe. A new permit may be required at such other time as the Secretary shall by regulation prescribe.

(b) Suspension Or Revocation.—

(1) SHOW CAUSE HEARING.—If the Secretary has reason to believe that any person holding a permit—

(A) has not in good faith complied with this chapter, or with any other provision of this title involving intent to defraud,

(B) has violated the conditions of such permit,

(C) has failed to disclose any material information required or made any material false statement in the application for such permit,

(D) has failed to maintain their premises in such manner as to protect the revenue, or

(E) is, by reason of previous or current legal proceedings involving a felony violation of any other provision of Federal or State criminal law relating to cannabis, not likely to maintain operations in compliance with this chapter,

the Secretary shall issue an order, stating the facts charged, citing such person to show cause why their permit should not be suspended or revoked.

The bill does not define which departmental secretary would be responsible for making the permitting decision as outlined in the text, as that was left out in a drafting error. There are mentions of at least three different secretaries—health and human services, transportation and treasury—throughout the legislation.

There’s another caveat to this, as it doesn’t appear the permit requirement would apply to retail dispensaries. Only businesses that meet the definition of a “cannabis enterprise” would be affected, and that includes “a producer, importer, or export warehouse proprietor,” with producer being defined as “any person who plants, cultivates, harvests, grows, manufactures, produces, compounds, converts, processes, prepares, or packages any cannabis product.”

But even so, advocates are pushing to have the language removed. They point out that, because marijuana criminalization has disproportionately impacted people of color despite comparable usage rates with white people, the policy is inherently discriminatory.

“The felony exclusion provision was not just concerning, for social equity licensees and the organizations and communities that support, there was genuine fear and concern the exclusion would send signals to investors, companies and state and local lawmakers that could have an immediate chilling impact on investment, hiring and support for social equity operators and programs,” Brandon Banks, a board member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), told Marijuana Moment.

MCBA Vice President Kaliko Castille said the organization “worked with House leadership to make clear the intent of Congress to ensure those most impacted by cannabis prohibition would have access to the legal cannabis industry instead of continuing to face criminal penalties for activities generating billions and that any provisions to the contrary would not stand in future legislation.”

Overall, the legislation would federally deschedule cannabis, and those with prior convictions would have their records expunged. The descheduling provisions would be retroactive, too.

The reason the language at issue got into the MORE Act is because much of the text of a separate, previously introduced cannabis reform bill was inserted in the Rules Committee Print shortly before the floor vote. And its inclusion in that legislation, the Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act, is somewhat curious given that the bill’s lead sponsor is Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a fierce advocate for legalization who is intimately familiar with social equity concerns as the co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

When it came to Blumenauer’s attention, he attempted to get it removed from the MORE Act, but there wasn’t enough time between the Rules hearing and the floor vote, a spokesperson for the congressman said. She added that he has since secured a commitment from House Ways & Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) to have the language nixed the next time the bill comes up.

In a letter submitted to the Congressional Record, Blumenauer touted the progress that the legislation represents but added a caveat about the particular section that advocates have raised concerns about.

“No bill is perfect, and the MORE Act contains a provision that is contrary to our legislative intent,” he wrote. “Without hesitation, I am committed to correcting this language to ensure that the millions of Americans, especially Black and Latino people, who have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition can participate equally in this emerging industry. Equity, inclusion and opportunity are fundamental values that must be at the center of all federal cannabis legislation.”

“This is not the end of the story, it’s the beginning of the next chapter,” he said. “This is a fight for racial justice, economic justice, and freedom. This policy is long-overdue.”

It was an oversight that advocates and industry stakeholders, who meticulously review and help draft cannabis bills, share the blame for, Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, acknowledged to Marijuana Moment.

Blumenauer’s office did not provide a response to an inquiry about why the provisions was added to his original bill, the first version of which was filed in 2017. A representative for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), another champion of cannabis reform who sponsored the Senate companion version of the legislation, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the origins of the marijuana felony ban language.

Queen Adesuyi, policy manager of national affairs for DPA, told Filter that she understands the concerns about “problematic provisions” of the revised MORE Act—but that “it was really difficult to walk away from the entire vehicle because of the longer-term implications that we’re able to see, in terms of our ability to actually move anything at all.”

Of course, it should be noted that while the MORE Act cleared the House, it’s seriously unlikely to get a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate, which is run by anti-marijuana Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), before the end of the current Congress. So if Democrats take the bill back up next session, they will have an opportunity to address advocates’ concerns. And Strekal said they have a “commitment” from allies on the Hill to remove the problematic language.

Shaleen Title, a commissioner on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission who has focused on equity issues, wrote in a blog post earlier this month that while advocates are “encouraged by any forward movement on cannabis criminal justice reform, we strongly believe that we will not get racial justice without economic justice.”

“We very much appreciate your support of cannabis legalization and restorative justice and look forward to the opportunity to work with you on changes to the Act that will support the ground breaking cannabis equity work already occurring across the country,” she wrote to lawmakers on behalf of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition.

Other than the permit provision, the bill was also revised before reaching the floor with a series of mostly technical amendments, though there was one significant change as it relates to the proposed tax structure for marijuana.

As now structured, the MORE Act would make it so cannabis would be federally taxed at five percent for the first two years after implementation and then increased by one percent each year until reaching eight percent. After five years, taxes would be applied to marijuana products based on weight rather than price.

The bill would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

A new Cannabis Justice Office under the Justice Department would be responsible for distributing funds providing loans for small cannabis businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. The bill also seeks to minimize barriers to licensing and employment in the legal industry.

It would also establish a Community Reinvestment Grant Program. Tax dollars appropriated to that program would go to job training, legal aid for criminal and civil cases such as those concerning marijuana-related expungements, literacy programs and youth recreation and mentoring services, among other programs.

Some advocates also took issue with other late changes that stipulate that the heads of the Transportation Department and Coast Guard may continue to include marijuana in drug testing programs for safety-sensitive positions and clarify that the expungement provisions only apply to “non-violent marijuana offenders” and bars so-called “kingpins” from obtaining expungements.

“Now that we have the precedent of a bill passing to end marijuana prohibition in the House of Representatives under Democratic control—and with Democratic control returning in the next session—I feel confident that we can improve the bill,” Strekal said. “And it is our hope that working with more stakeholders, we will make many improvements in the bill such as including a post-prohibition regulatory structure that will provide greater certainty to new emerging markets and promote standardization of labeling and weights and metrics as more and more states legalize marijuana in the future.”

Overall, the passage of the legalization legislation could send a strong signal to the incoming presidential administration, and it sets the stage for similar action in 2021—especially if Democrats win control of the Senate after two runoff elections in Georgia next month.

Given President-elect Joe Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released last month left out mention of those cannabis pledges. While Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is sponsoring the MORE Act in the Senate, she’s indicated that she would not necessarily push the president-elect to adopt a pro-legalization position.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For his part, Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service released an analysis of the MORE Act last month, finding that the bill’s passage could “reverse” the current cannabis policy gap that exists between states and the federal government.

Read Blumenauer’s submission to the Congressional Record on the MORE Act below:

Blumenauer MORE Act by Marijuana Moment

What Trump’s Pardon Means For This Man Who Served 13 Years In Prison For Marijuana

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Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

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California Senator Seeks Federal Clarification On Medical Marijuana Use In Hospitals

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A California senator is asking the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide clarification on whether hospitals and other healthcare facilities in legal marijuana states can allow terminally ill patients to use medical cannabis without jeopardizing federal funding.

State Sen. Ben Hueso (D) on Thursday sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure inquiring about the policy. Confusion about possible implications for permitting marijuana consumption in health facilities led pro-legalization Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to veto a bill meant to address the issue in 2019.

Hueso refiled a nearly identical version of the legislation for this session, and it’s already passed the full Senate and one Assembly committee. It’s now awaiting action on the Assembly floor before potentially being sent to Newsom’s desk.

“Ryan’s Law would require that hospitals and certain types of healthcare facilities in the State of California allow a terminally-ill patient to use medical cannabis for treatment and/or pain relief,” the senator wrote in the letter to the federal officials, with whom he is asking to meet to discuss the issue. “Currently, whether or not medical cannabis is permitted is left up to hospital policy, and this creates issues for patients and their families who seek alternative, more natural medication options in their final days.”

Hospitals that receive CMS accreditation are generally expected to comply with local, state and federal laws in order to qualify for certain reimbursements. And so because marijuana remains federally illegal, “many healthcare facilities have adopted policies prohibiting cannabis on their grounds out of a perceived risk of losing federal funding if they were to allow it.”

But Hueso said that his office received a letter from CMS several months ago stating that there are no specific federal regulations in place that specifically address this issue and that it isn’t aware of any cases where funding has been pulled because a hospital allows patients to use medical cannabis.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Additionally, because the Justice Department has been barred under annually renewed spending legislation from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of state-level medical marijuana programs, the senator said, “we believe the risk of federal intervention is little to none.”

“This confirmation from CMS been quite a breakthrough and we are optimistic it will alleviate the Governor’s concerns,” the letter continues. “However, I want to underscore that, prior to receiving this response, even the Governor of California was under the impression that CMS rules prohibited hospitals and healthcare facilities from allowing medical cannabis use.”

“Undoubtedly other states are struggling with this issue, too,” it says. “As more states decriminalize cannabis and even create recreational markets, we must not forget to also update the books for the most important consumers of all—patients.”

“While ideally the federal government will remove cannabis from its Schedule I designation, I appreciate that this is a lengthy and complex process. In the interim, it would be extremely helpful if you could provide clarification that assures Medicare/Medicaid providers that they will not lose reimbursements for allowing medical cannabis use on their premises. This clarification would go a long way to help hospital staff, security, above all, patients.”

Becerra, while previously serving as California attorney general and as a member of Congress, demonstrated a track record of supporting marijuana law reform.

Meanwhile, there are efforts in both chambers of Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are currently soliciting feedback on draft legalization legislation they introduced this month.

Meanwhile, a separate House bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity in the industry was reintroduced in May.

The legislation, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), was filed with a number of changes compared to the version that was approved by the chamber last year.

Read the letter from the California senator to Becerra below: 

Marijuana hospital letter t… by Marijuana Moment

Rhode Island House Speaker Says ‘No Consensus’ On Marijuana Legalization, But It’s ‘Workable’

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Rhode Island House Speaker Says ‘No Consensus’ On Marijuana Legalization, But It’s ‘Workable’

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A top Rhode Island lawmaker says that while there’s not yet a consensus among legislators and the governor on a bill to legalize marijuana, it’s still a “workable” issue and would be prioritized if a special session is convened this fall.

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D) told The Public’s Radio that it’s “possible” that a special session will be held later in the year after lawmakers failed to reach a deal on competing reform proposals.

“It really depends if we can come to some kind of resolution of consensus on a couple of major bills,” he said, referring to cannabis and a handful of other issues. “If we can, we certainly would come back.” But if not, members will continue to discuss the proposals and prepare to take them up at the start of the next session in January.

“Unfairly, sometimes I have or the House gets blamed for stopping the legalization of recreational use of marijuana, when in reality there is no consensus,” he said. “If we can come to some closeness, in the several different proposals, then we’ll move some kind of legislation. But if not, it just needs more work—and it’s very workable, so it’s very much something that can happen, we just have to put the effort in and make it happen.”

Listen to the speaker discuss the marijuana legalization plan, about 1:00 into the audio  below: 

Shekarchi similarly told Marijuana Moment in an email earlier this week that he’s “not opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana,” but “there have been very divergent proposals offered by Representative Scott Slater, the Senate, the governor and various advocacy groups.”

“As I have done with other issues, my role will be to bring the parties together and see if we can reach a consensus,” he said. “I will be working on the issue this summer and fall, and if an agreement can be reached, it is possible that one piece of legislation will be brought before the legislature for future consideration. But there is a lot of work to be done to reach consensus.”

Shekarchi and other top lawmakers have previously said they will work this summer to try to reach a compromise on the differing provisions of the competing legalization plans.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) said earlier this month that he’s not disappointed the House hasn’t advanced legalization legislation yet and that “what we really wanted to do was send it over and have them take a look at it” when his chamber passed a cannabis reform measure last month.

Shekarchi previously said that he feels reform is “inevitable.”


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

A key disagreement between the House, Senate and governor’s office concerns who should have regulatory authority over marijuana. Ruggerio was pressed on the issue during the recent interview and said members of his chamber agree that “a separate commission is the way to go with respect to this.”

The House and Gov. Dan McKee (D), on the other hand, want the program to be managed by the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR). Ruggerio noted that “it was difficult to negotiate on a bill when the House bill really didn’t come until late in the session.”

Asked whether he felt the legislature and governor could come to an agreement despite the differences, Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey (D) said this month that “that’s what our goal is.”

“Obviously there’s some issues that different people have relative to different categories of licenses and things like that and how we’re rolling them out,” he said. “Are we going to limit them? what type of equity are you going to give to the different people in different communities so that they can get into the business? And social equity and things of that nature.”

McCaffrey was also asked about provisions related to allowing local municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area. He said “once the legislation is passed and whatever form is passed in, the communities have an opportunity to opt out.”

“They have an opportunity to opt out if the community doesn’t want to participate in it,” he said. “That’s their decision—however, they don’t get the funds that would come from the sales in that community.”

The majority leader also noted that neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have enacted legalization, and that adds impetus for the legislature to pursue reform in the state. .

Shekarchi, meanwhile, said this month that he doesn’t intend to let regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacts a policy change. But it is the case that legalization has now gone in effect in in surrounding states like Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“I’m not in any hurry to legalize marijuana for the sake of legalizing it. I want to do it right,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me if we’re the last state in the union to legalize it or we never legalize it, but I need to do it right.”

Social equity, licensing fees, labor agreements and home grow provisions are among the outstanding matters that need to be addressed, Shekarchi said.

These latest comment come weeks after the state Senate approved a legalization bill from McCaffrey and Health & Human Services Chairman Joshua Miller (D), which was introduced in March. The governor also came out with his own legalization proposal shortly thereafter.

A third Rhode Island legalization measure was later filed on the House side by Rep. Scott Slater (D) and several cosponsors. The House Finance Committee held a hearing on the measure last month.

The governor, for his part, told reporters that while he backs legalization it is “not like one of my highest priorities,” adding that “we’re not in a race with Connecticut or Massachusetts on this issue.”

“I think we need to get it right,” he said, pointing to ongoing discussions with the House and Senate.

The House Finance Committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end prohibition at an earlier hearing in April.

Both the governor and the leaders’ legalization plans are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget last year. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.

McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform in January, saying that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”

Shekarchi, meanwhile, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization and also leans toward privatization.

Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who now serves as the panel’s chairman, said at the time.

Meanwhile, the governor this month signed a historic bill to allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources to enter treatment. Harm reduction advocates say this would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance misuse. Rhode Island is the first state to allow the facilities.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing in March on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.

Ohio Lawmakers Officially File Marijuana Legalization Bill In Historic First For The State

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Ohio Lawmakers Officially File Marijuana Legalization Bill In Historic First For The State

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Ohio lawmakers on Friday formally introduced a bill to legalize marijuana possession, production and sales—the first effort of its kind in the state legislature. This comes as activists are pursuing a separate ballot initiative that would effectively force the legislature to consider similar cannabis reforms.

Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D) filed the legislation, weeks after circulating a co-sponsorship memo to colleagues to build support for the measure.

The 180-page bill 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 also includes provisions to expunge prior convictions for possession and cultivation activities that are being made legal under the measure.

A 10 percent excise tax would be imposed on marijuana sales, with revenue first going toward the cost of implementation and then being divided among municipalities with at least one cannabis shop (15 percent), counties with at least one shop (15 percent), K-12 education (35 percent) and infrastructure (35 percent).

“It’s time to lead Ohio forward,” Weinstein said in a press release. “This is a big step for criminal justice reform, for our veterans, for economic opportunity, and for our individual liberties.”

The state Department of Commerce would be responsible for overseeing the program and issuing cannabis business licenses.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Individual municipalities could restrict the type and number of marijuana that operate in their area. The bill specifically states that the state’s existing medical marijuana program would not be impacted by the establishment of an adult-use market.

“This bill is much needed in Ohio, and it’s time for Ohio to become a national leader in marijuana decriminalization and legalization,” Upchurch said. “This bill is more than just about legalization, it’s about economic and workforce development, it’s about decriminalization, and it’s about healthcare! The time is now, and I look forward to getting this done in a bipartisan fashion.”

Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is likely to oppose the effort given his record, but activists have effectively demonstrated through local initiatives that voters in the state broadly support enacting a cannabis policy change.

A newly formed organization called the the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) is also actively collecting signatures for a statewide ballot measure that would separately force lawmakers to consider taking up legalization legislation once a certain signature gathering threshold is met.

“I’m glad to see it! It’s added momentum toward legalization,” Weinstein told Marijuana Moment earlier this week of the ballot effort. “And hopefully a looming ballot initiative will add some incentive for my Republican colleagues to work with me on my bill.”

Meanwhile, 22 jurisdictions have adopted local statues so far that reduce the penalty for low-level cannabis possession from a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine to the “lowest penalty allowed by state law.” And activists are pursuing similar policy changes in dozens of cities this year.

Don Keeney, executive director of NORML Appalachia, told Marijuana Moment that local officials have so far certified decriminalization initiatives in five cities they were targeting this year: Laurelville, McArthur, Murray City, New Lexington and New Straitsville.

Ohio activists had hoped to place a cannabis legalization initiative on the statewide ballot last year, but that effort stalled as the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting public health restrictions made signature gathering all but impossible.

Local advocates sought relief through the court system to make it so they could collect signatures electronically for 2020 ballot initiatives, but the lawsuit was repeatedly rejected—most recently by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which ruled on Wednesday that the challenge was no longer relevant because last year’s election has passed and the case was therefore moot.

Read the text of the Ohio marijuana legalization bill below: 

Ohio marijuana legalization… by Marijuana Moment

GOP Senator Sponsoring Marijuana Banking Bill Proposes Controversial Welfare Restrictions For Cannabis Purchases

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