In November, Ohio voters passed a landmark ballot measure allowing the possession and sale of recreational marijuana for adults. For months – years, even – conservative Republican lawmakers in the state worked tirelessly to prevent recreational legislation from gaining a foothold in the state. Voters prevailed, and on December 7th, legal marijuana will be the law of the land. Unfortunately, conservative state lawmakers have other tricks up their sleeves meant to subvert the will of the people.
Already, a bill introduced in the Ohio Statehouse seeks to undercut the state’s new recreational marijuana statute approved by voters. If passed, the measure could mean more marijuana bans and less recreational cannabis to go around.
Ohio Voters Pass Recreational Marijuana Ballot Measure
On November 7th, Ohio became the 24th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Voters hit the polls in droves and, by a 14-point margin, came down on the side of legalizing cannabis possession and recreational sales. Issue 2 allows adults over 21 to buy, possess, and grow marijuana. All cannabis products will be taxed at 10 percent. The tax revenue from legal cannabis sales gets distributed into four buckets: social equity programs, municipalities with dispensaries, a substance abuse fund, and administrative costs.
The new law takes effect on December 7th, 30 days following the November election. However, lawmakers in the state are scrambling to subvert the new law and change the rules.
A Long Battle for Marijuana Legalization
At nearly every turn, conservative Ohio lawmakers have sought to quash efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. Within the last few years, pro-reform state lawmakers introduced two separate marijuana bills. However, neither of the bills made it to a full vote. House Bill 382 was proposed in August of 2021, followed by House Bill 498, introduced in December. During the most recent legislative session, one group of Ohio lawmakers sought to legalize adult-use cannabis with Ohio House Bill 168. The measure would also have expunged past low-level, non-violent marijuana offenses. However, with a Republican majority and Governor Mike DeWine (R) staunchly opposed to marijuana legalization, a legislative solution to recreational marijuana seemed unlikely.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol vigorously sought to bring the issue to the people of Ohio through a ballot initiative. The previous year, the group’s efforts hit a brick wall after missing a deadline for state legislators to adopt the proposed recreational cannabis ballot measure. In response, the organization filed a lawsuit against state officials. Eventually, the Coalition and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, House Speaker Bob Cupp, and Senate President Matt Huffman compromised. The group continued its campaign and signature collection efforts the following year, and recreational marijuana legalization ended up on the November ballot as Issue 2.
The hurdles to get marijuana legalized in Ohio have been numerous, making the November victory all the sweeter. That is, until the governor and other conservative lawmakers said, “not so fast.”
Changing the Rules of the Game
Marijuana advocates should not be surprised that conservative lawmakers want to change the rules of the game now. State Rep. Gary Click (R-88th) recently introduced Ohio House Bill 314. The bill seeks to allow local governments to ban the consumption of recreational marijuana and home cultivation of cannabis plants. The measure would also divert some tax revenue from recreational cannabis to a fund for police training.
Issue 2, the voter-passed ballot initiative, allows local municipalities to ban recreational dispensaries from setting up shop in their town. However, it prohibits these local governments from outlawing recreational marijuana consumption and home-growing cannabis plants. Click’s amendment to Issue 2, if passed, would remove those prohibitions, meaning in some areas, marijuana would again become illegal. It would also limit vital academic research on cannabis.
Gov. DeWine has already called on lawmakers to amend the recreational marijuana law. A statement from the Governor’s office says, in part, “Governor DeWine is working with the Ohio General Assembly to advance legislation that would better implement the legalization of recreational marijuana passed by voters in November. The Governor respects the decision by a majority of Ohio voters to allow for the legal sale of recreational marijuana and to reduce the black market of illicit marijuana sales.” However, the Governor has expressed tenacious opposition to efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, even going on a media blitz before the election attempting to discourage voters from saying yes to Issue 2.
Following the passage of Issue 2, Gov. DeWine scheduled meetings with Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephen and Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, both Republicans with avowed anti-cannabis political views who were quick to express interest in changing the newly passed law almost as soon as the race was called.
How is any of this political maneuvering allowed? Technically, as a citizen-initiate statute, the new law passed by voters is subject to change by lawmakers, meaning lawmakers can seek to change or repeal the law. It seems conservative, anti-marijuana lawmakers are quickly coalescing to make changes to the expressed will of the people, taking the teeth out of the measure and attempting to make recreational possession and consumption illegal in many areas of the state controlled by conservative, Republican local leaders.
With Republicans controlling the state legislature, it may only be a matter of time before the historic passage of Issue 2 in Ohio gets an unfortunate footnote and local leaders get a free pass to prohibit once again not only the sale of recreational marijuana but the possession and cultivation of cannabis. If the boon in tax revenue that neighboring states like Illinois and Michigan have seen is any indication, this decision will extend the divide between cities, suburbs, and rural districts in Ohio.
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