As Ohioans prepare to vote on a marijuana legalization initiative at the ballot in November, state lawmakers are already thinking about ways they might seek to revise the law if approved. But while top officials like the governor and Senate president oppose the reform, some bipartisan legislators are dismissing the idea that there would be enough opposition to enact a full-on repeal.
The reform initiative, which was certified for the ballot last month after activists turned in enough valid signatures to qualify, has exposed some intra-party divides on cannabis policy.
Gov. Mike DeWine (R) opposes the reform, as does Senate President Matt Huffman (R). But recent polling shows most Republican voters support legalization. A GOP congressman representing Ohio’s 14th district also plans to personally vote for the initiative.
The governor told The Columbus Dispatch that there’s “a lot of discussion that has to take place” around legalization.
States that have enacted adult-use legalization “have seen some things happen, and I don’t think these are things we want to see in Ohio,” he said, without giving specific examples.
Huffman, meanwhile, said that legalization is “really going to be devastating,” arguing that it will lead to increase cannabis consumption by people who were deterred by prohibition.
“There are a lot of people who don’t do something because it’s illegal, believe it or not, and if it’s more accessible to whoever’s going to buy it, it’s going to be more accessible to people who shouldn’t be smoking it,” he said.
Despite Huffman’s position on the measure, so far he has not signaled plans to push for a repeal if voters opt to legalize. The Dispatch reported that he said the margin by which legalization is potentially approved on the ballot will inform his approach to the issue after Election Day.
Meanwhile, other lawmakers say the possibility of a successful repeal effort is unlikely considering that legalization enjoys strong Democratic support and even some GOP support in the legislature.
“There are not a majority of legislators in both chambers that would be pro-repeal,” Rep. Ron Ferguson (R) told The Dispatch. “That’s definitely not the case. You would have no Democrats, and there are not enough Republicans to put them in the top.”
As the Senate’s president, Huffman had an opportunity to advance reform legislation fitted to the lawmakers’ preference after the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) turned in an initial round of signatures for their initiative that triggered a legislative review period.
Legalization supporters—including Rep. Casey Weinstein (D), who has sponsored bipartisan cannabis bills—implored leadership to take that opportunity, contending that inaction would likely mean that activists would have their vision of reform enshrined into state law.
In fact, Weinstein said that there are more GOP lawmakers who privately support legalization who he predicts will feel emboldened to make their views public after voters approve Issue 2 at the ballot.
“That’s my sense. My hope is that the voters passing this—which I think the voters will—will give those reticent, quietly supportive lawmakers that permission they’re waiting for,” he said.
Rather than push to repeal a voter-approved legalization measure, there’s an expectation that the legislature will be positioned to move additional legislation to revise and refine the law next session. For Weinstein, he hopes that means passing legislation to make the industry more “economically accessible.”
Sen. Bill Blessing (R) said that he “would think that the General Assembly would try to work with it if it passes because of the threat of a Constitutional amendment.”
House Speaker Jason Stephens (R) didn’t comment on the specifics of Issue 2, but offered that “they call it the revised code for a reason.”
Unlike the top state Republican lawmakers, U.S. Rep Dave Joyce (R-OH), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said last month that he’ll be voting in favor of the initiative in November. And he encouraged “all Ohio voters to participate and make their voices heard on this important issue.”
The Ohio Ballot Board approved summary language for the legalization measure late last month. It says the measure would legalize and regulate “the cultivation, processing, sale, purchase, possession, home grow, and use of cannabis by adults at least twenty-one years of age.” And it gives an overview of the regulatory structure of the program, social equity provisions, state-level protections for financial institutions that work with the industry and more.
Here are the key provisions of the legalization ballot measure that may appear on the November ballot:
- The initiative 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.
- A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).
- A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”
- The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.
- The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.
- Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.
- Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”
- With respect to social equity, some advocates are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, the measure does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.
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Meanwhile, the Ohio Association of Health Commissioners, which represents Ohio’s 112 local health departments, became one of the latest groups to come out against the initiative last month. The Ohio Children’s Hospital Association and Adolescent Health Association, as well as law enforcement and some business groups, are also urging voters to reject the reform.
A recent economic analysis from researchers at Ohio State University estimated that the reform would bring in up to $403.6 million in annual tax dollars from adult-use marijuana sales if voters approve it.
If the measure is ultimately enacted, that would bring the total number of states with adult-use legalization on the books to 24.
Ohioans have made clear that they’re ready for a policy change during elections in multiple recent cycles. To date, more than three dozen Ohio localities have enacted decriminalization through the local ballot.
Last November, for example, voters five more cities approved local marijuana decriminalization ballot initiatives. And during a primary election in May, voters in Helena similarly enacted the reform.
Separately, while the governor opposes legalization, he signed a major criminal justice reform bill in January that will let cities facilitate mass expungements for people with certain drug-related convictions, including marijuana possession of up to 200 grams.
After the law took effect, the mayor of Cleveland said in April that the city will be moving forward with plans to seal thousands of cannabis records. However, a study published last month found that just about one in 10 Ohio prosecutors plan to follow suit by independently facilitating relief under the law.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.