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Ohio Taps Former Alcohol Regulator to Helm Marijuana Program

Ohio Republicans continue to look for ways to undermine voters and curb the spread of recreational marijuana. However, as of December 7th, recreational marijuana is the law of the land, meaning the state must establish a Division of Cannabis Control to oversee the recreational cannabis market. Ohio’s Department of Commerce Director recently announced the state’s pick to helm the newly established DCC and manage the recreational marijuana roll-out in the state.

James Canepa, the man tapped to lead the DCC, has a long and extensive career serving regulatory bodies. Many hope his knowledge and experience can help Ohio establish a comprehensive regulatory framework to provide citizens with a safe and effective cannabis marketplace.

Who Is James Canepa? 

James Canepa will now serve as Ohio’s head of the Division of Cannabis Control. The DCC is responsible for creating rules for recreational marijuana cultivators, retailers, dispensaries, and processors. The DCC must also make decisions on retail licensing. 

Canepa previously worked at the Division of Liquor Control as the department’s superintendent for six years. Before he joined the regulatory body, he also worked in the Ohio attorney general’s office, as chief counsel to the Ohio Department of Public Safety, and as a deputy inspector general for the state and Franklin County appellate prosecutor. In the weeks after the historic Issue 2 vote to legalize recreational marijuana in Ohio, he has also been advising the state’s Medical Marijuana Control program. His work revolved around “rulemaking options” related to Ohio’s newly enacted adult-use cannabis market. 

Department of Commerce Director Sherry Maxfield says that Canepa’s history of leadership and innovation makes him an excellent choice for heading the DCC. She says he will help navigate the new area of retail and regulatory responsibility in Ohio that aligns with the expectations of Ohio voters. For his part, Canepa says that he is humbled by the new opportunity and looks forward to implementing a first-of-its-kind recreational program in a “safe, responsible, and efficient way.” 

Canepa points to his time behind the scenes with law enforcement and in the retail industry as strengths, saying, “both experiences will be central to the work that has already begun in this area inside the Department of Commerce.”

Questions Over Experience

Although many are supportive of the new DCC head pick, cannabis advocates question whether someone with an extensive background in law enforcement is the correct man for the job. America’s “war on drugs,” strict drug penalties, and history of marijuana busts and prosecutions disproportionately impacting communities of color have some cannabis advocates questioning whether someone previously involved in supporting those outcomes is suited to developing legalized cannabis policy. 

Marijuana advocates have also harshly criticized Republican lawmakers in the state, who are currently pushing proposals to redirect cannabis revenue to various law enforcement funds. Advocates argue that voters who passed Issue 2 in November passed a measure designed to funnel marijuana tax revenue into programs promoting social equity, not law enforcement. Having a DCC head close to law enforcement may not be a popular choice with the public and cannabis enthusiasts. 

However, cannabis advocates may be pleased to learn that Greg McIlvaine, the former Policy Director for the Medical Marijuana Control Program, has also been tapped for a leadership role in the new Division of Cannabis Control. McIlvaine held the position for the past four years. Department of Commerce Director Sherry Maxfield says that McIlvaine’s performance and experience in the industry can help Ohioans understand and trust the DCC and how it regulates the emerging recreational cannabis market.  

The Fight Over Recreational Cannabis in Ohio 

The new head of the DCC has an uphill battle on his hands. As he helms the newly established regulatory body and moves to regulate cannabis in the state, there are continued talks on the part of Ohio Republicans who want to take the teeth out of Issue 2, the voter-passed initiative legalizing recreational marijuana. After their attempts to prevent the issue from heading to the voters failed, party leaders launched a media blitz designed to discourage voters from passing Issue 2. Now, GOP lawmakers are trying a new tactic, with support from Republican Governor Mike DeWine: attempting to introduce amendments to neuter Issue 2. 

State Rep. Gary Click (R-88th) introduced Ohio House Bill 314. The measure would allow local Ohio governments to not only prevent dispensaries from setting up shops in their municipalities but it would also outright ban the consumption of recreational marijuana and home cultivation of cannabis plants. The spirit of the measure is to allow local governments to effectively make marijuana illegal again, something that directly flies in the face of the stated will of Ohio voters. 

Governor DeWine has repeatedly called on GOP lawmakers to amend the recreational marijuana law. On one hand, the governor says he respects what the people of Ohio have done. On the other hand, however, he increasingly promotes rhetoric and policy amendments that seem to run counter to what the people of Ohio voted to pass regarding recreational marijuana. These include allowing cities to ban recreational use or diverting recreational tax revenue to law enforcement and other programs, essentially lowering the amount of money that would be available for social equity programs and other organizations outlined in Issue 2. 

The Ohio Senate recently passed a bill paving the way for significant changes to Issue 2. The measure seeks to change home grow rules, increase the tax rate on recreational cannabis from 10 percent to 15 percent, and alter how cannabis revenue gets distributed. Advocates say the measure the Senate passed is remarkably different from what Ohio voters supported when they passed Issue 2 in November. However, progress is unlikely to be made to rewrite cannabis law in Ohio until the Ohio General Assembly convenes again in 2024.

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