Ohio marijuana activists have a new plan to legalize cannabis in the state as lawmakers pursue separate reform legislation.
Voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative, and advocates suspended a campaign to place another measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic. But on Tuesday, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) launched 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.
“I think people are tired of prohibition with respect to marijuana,” spokesperson Tom Haren told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Tuesday, adding that he thinks Ohioans are ready to join the growing list of states that are enacting legalization.
Unlike past efforts, the new measure is a statutory, rather that a constitutional, proposal. If supporters collect 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters, the legislature will then have four months to adopt the measure, reject it or adopt and amended version. If lawmakers to not pass the proposal, organizers will then need to collect an additional 132,887 signatures to place the measure before voters on the ballot in 2022.
“We are proposing to regulate marijuana for adult use, just like we do for alcohol,” Haren said in a press release. “Our proposal fixes a broken system while ensuring local control, keeping marijuana out of the hands of children and benefiting everyone.”
The 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 reform 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 put the measure on the ballot.
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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).
Under the proposal, 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 the enactment of the legislation.
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.”
“Marijuana legalization is an issue whose time has come in Ohio,” Haren said in the press release, adding that “we crafted legislation based on the best practices learned by those that went before us.”
“Ohioans want this,” he said. “They see marijuana legalization as inevitable. They want our leaders to seize the opportunity and take control of our future.”
With respect to social equity, some advocate 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, it does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.
Haren said the reason they weren’t able to prescribe specific expungement provisions is due to the state’s single subject ballot rule for initiated statutes.
If the measure does make the ballot, the results of local reform initiatives across the state signal that it would be successful.
As it stands, 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, with several having already collected enough signatures to qualify for local ballots.
“Legalization is popular in Ohio,” Haren told Marijuana Moment. “That’s why these types of local decrim measures are passing—because people recognize that marijuana prohibition has failed, and it’s not good policy. And it’s much better policy to have a regulated market that provides consumers with an ability to purchase from a legal, regulated source.”
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
“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.”
Haren said that while he hasn’t reviewed Weinstein’s legislation at this point, his organization would welcome working with any lawmaker to get reform enacted one way or the other.
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.
Like the CTRMLA proposal, a 10 percent excise tax would be imposed on marijuana sales. But after covering administrative costs, revenue would be 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).
Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is likely to oppose the legislative effort given his record. But a voter-led initiative could create a different opportunity for advocates.
“We are laser focused at this point on getting the required number of signatures, sending it to the legislature and then working with them—hand in glove, in lockstep, whatever phrase you want to use—to get get this proposal ultimately signed into law by the governor,” Haren said.
According to cleveland.com, the CTRMLA campaign has already hired several prominent consulting firms to work on the effort, suggesting it has robust funding.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.