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Ohio Voters Will Need To Decide On Marijuana Legalization At Ballot As Legislature Stalls, Pro-Reform GOP Lawmaker Says



If Ohio is going to legalize marijuana this year, it’s probably going to need to happen at the ballot, a GOP state lawmaker who is cosponsoring a legalization bill said last week.

At an event hosted by Ohio State University on Thursday, Rep. Ron Ferguson (R) expressed disappointment that the Republican-controlled legislature has declined to take action on cannabis reform and instead seems positioned to leave the issue up to voters if activists collect enough signature to qualify their legalization measure for the November ballot.

Ferguson said he would “like to see us have a legislative solution” and “really get accomplished within the statehouse”—but it’s apparent that leadership isn’t going to move on the issue, even after advocates turned in enough valid signatures earlier this year to trigger a legislative review of legalization.

“I’m fearful that the folks in the statehouse are looking at more of a five-year-and-beyond plan,” the lawmaker said, adding that if Ohio is going to see a policy change enacted in the near future, it will likely come in November if the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) ballot campaign is successful.

Marijuana Moment asked Ferguson about the apparent disconnect between the public and the legislature on cannabis policy, and he recognized that there’s a problem.

“I want to see our legislators be better,” he said. “I think that every bill that we have should get a good, solid, open hearing no matter how good or bad that it is so that, if it’s bad, we can stay away from it. If it’s good, we can embrace it.”

But while the legislature has options this session beyond the activist-driven initiative—the bill Ferguson introduced alongside Rep. Jamie Callender (R), as well as another legalization proposal from Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D), for example—it doesn’t appear likely that they will even receive hearings.

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Ferguson said that the “nice thing” about enacting reform legislatively is that “if we don’t exactly get it right,” lawmakers are more easily able to revise policies. It’s significantly more challenging to make changes to a voter-approved ballot measure, Ferguson said.

But where things stand—with Senate President Matt Huffman (R) and other key lawmakers dismissing the idea of ending prohibition through the legislature—reform supporters are apparently going to need to take things into their own hands. And activists are ready to meet that demand.

CTRMLA submitted more than the required 132,887 signatures to the state in January to prompt a legislative review of legalization. Lawmakers were given four months to take the issue into consideration, and that window is quickly closing. After the four months expire, activists are geared up and ready to collect another 132,887 signatures to put their legalization initiative before voters.

A recent poll found that a slim majority of Ohio voters would support marijuana legalization at the ballot.

The measure that lawmakers were asked to consider 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.

Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform 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.

Activists suspended a subsequent campaign to place a legalization measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, Ferguson’s bill would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 50 grams of cannabis. They could also grow up to six plants, only three of which could be mature, for personal use.

Gifting up to 25 grams of marijuana between adult consumers without remuneration would also be permitted.

Adult-use cannabis products would be taxed at 10 percent. After covering administrative costs, tax revenue would be distributed as follows: 50 percent to the state general fund, 25 percent to combat illicit drug trafficking and 25 percent for substance misuse treatment programs.

The state Department of Commerce would be responsible for regulating the new adult-use marijuana and existing medical cannabis program and issuing business licenses through a new Division of Marijuana Control.

Regulators would be limited to approving one retail cannabis dispensary license per 60,000 residents in the state up until January 1, 2027. After that point, the department would would be required to review the program on “at least a biennial basis” to see if more licensees are needed.

The legislation does not contain specific provisions to promote social equity by expunging prior cannabis convictions or prioritizing licensing for communities most impacted under prohibition. That’s despite Callender saying in October that there would be a pathway for expungements “for folks that have prior convictions that would be not illegal after the passage of this bill.”

There are also local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.

After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now targeting several other jurisdictions across the state.

Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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