The U.S. Supreme Court decline on Tuesday to hear a case challenging local Ohio officials’ refusal to place citizen initiatives to decriminalize marijuana on municipal ballots.
The decision is the culmination of a two-year legal battle between cannabis reform advocates and the Portage County Board of Elections.
In 2018, activists submitted ballot initiatives to decriminalize marijuana in Garrettsville and Windham, but the board determined that they could not appear before voters, arguing the proposals constituted administrative, rather than legislative, issues that are not appropriate for the ballot process.
The activists took the matter to federal district court where they contended that state statutes allowing the board to reject the measures are unconstitutional, violating their First and Fourteenth Amendments. A judge agreed and issued a permanent injunction against the board and secretary of state against enforcing the statutes—but the victory was short-lived.
Although the judge ordered the board to place the measures on the ballot, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the district court’s ruling and vacated the permanent injunction.
The federal appeals court agreed with defendants that state law allowing them to refuse to place the decriminalization measures on the ballot is their prerogative, as it deals with an administrative rule change in their view as opposed to a legislative matter. Further, the court said plaintiffs did have the right to seek a “judicially imposed remedy” through mandamus relief but chose to challenge the state statute itself.
While the advocates hoped the Supreme Court would hear their case about whether the subject matter restrictions in Ohio ballot election law are lawful, Bloomberg’s Kimberly Robinson reported on Tuesday that the justices declined to take it up.
#SCOTUS won’t hear case asking if subject matter restrictions on ballot initiatives (here, prohibiting initiative to decriminalize marijuana) are subject to strict scrutiny (No 19-974 Schmitt v. LaRose)
— Kimberly Robinson (@KimberlyRobinsn) May 26, 2020
It’s not clear if the court’s action means more local boards of election throughout Ohio will feel empowered to reject certain initiatives on subject matter ground but, in general, those outside of Portage County have allowed similar measures to proceed.
A total of 17 Ohio cities have passed cannabis decriminalization ordinances—most through the ballot but a handful through city councils. That list of jurisdictions with decriminalization on the books includes major cities like Dayton, Toledo, Athens, Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.
Activists behind those ordinances have plans to significantly expand the number of municipalities with decriminalization on the books, and they scored a notable victory last week when a federal judge ruled in a separate case that they can collect signatures for their petitions electronically after they were forced to suspend in-person gathering due to the coronavirus pandemic.
If digital petitioning is ultimately permitted for any initiative, that could also be a major boost for activists behind a proposed statewide ballot measure to legalize cannabis for adult use that has seen its prospects dimmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.