Key Senate Committee Chair Undecided On Ohio Marijuana Legalization Ballot Initiative As He Works To Advance Cannabis Banking Bill

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) might be working to advance a bipartisan cannabis banking bill in Congress—but he says he’s yet undecided on a marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on his own state’s ballot in November.

As Brown’s panel officially scheduled a markup of the revised Secure and Fair Enforcement Regulation (SAFER) Act for next week, the chairman was asked how he intended to vote on the state Issue 2, which would legalize adult-use cannabis in Ohio.

He didn’t say that he would oppose the ballot measure—despite holding a record on cannabis policy that’s long put him somewhat at odds with his Democratic colleagues—but he told WOSU that he’s been “focused on trying to stop the extremists in the House from a government shutdown,” as well as passing legislation aimed at addressing illicit opioid trafficking and improving railway safety.

“But I will—in the next couple, three weeks—really sit down and read it and figure out what to do” when it comes time to vote on the marijuana ballot initiative, Brown said.

The noncommittal response comes in contrast to that of a Republican congressman who represents Ohio’s 14th district. Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, has affirmed that he will be voting “yes” on Issue 2, and he’s encouraged “all Ohio voters to participate and make their voices heard on this important issue.”

Brown, meanwhile, has faced criticism from reform advocates over his decades-long tenure in Congress, consistently declining to sponsor or cosponsor legalization legislation despite the issue’s growing bipartisan popularity.

He expressed “significant concerns” about an earlier 2015 Ohio marijuana legalization ballot measure that voters ultimately rejected—and which, to be fair, was opposed by many longtime cannabis activists over the way they felt it would have unfairly structured the market.

As recently as 2018, Brown suggested that cannabis might be a gateway drug.

“States that have legalized marijuana, we’ll see what happens in those states,” he said at the time. “If that means less addiction to more powerful drugs, or if it’s a gateway—and I don’t think we don’t know that yet.”

As a House member in 1998, Brown voted for a resolution “expressing the sense of Congress that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medicinal use.” The measure argued that “the ambiguous cultural messages about marijuana use are contributing to a growing acceptance of marijuana use among children and teenagers.”

“Congress continues to support the existing Federal legal process for determining the safety and efficacy of drugs and opposes efforts to circumvent this process by legalizing marijuana, and other Schedule I drugs, for medicinal use without valid scientific evidence and the approval of the Food and Drug Administration,” the resolution said.

In a 2010 letter to a constituent, Brown wrote that “there are risks associated with making marijuana legally available,” according to NORML. “The widespread popularity and use of this drug among our nation’s youth, as well as its role as a ‘pipeline’ drug (potentially leading to the use of heroin and other lethal drugs) distinguishes it from other controlled substances, and we must be particularly careful before creating the potential for expanded access and use.”

In 2011, Brown told a student who asked him to support marijuana reform legislation that he would “probably not” take initiative on the issue.

“I’ve got other priorities,” the senator said.

That said, Brown as a House member did vote in favor of amendments to prevent federal intervention in state medical cannabis programs, and he’s voiced support for legalizing medical cannabis and preserving states’ rights to set their own marijuana laws.

Giving marijuana businesses access to traditional financial services is also a policy he’s now actively working to enact as Banking Committee chairman.

“Whether you agree with marijuana legalization or not—and many of the people who support this bill don’t—this new law is necessary to protect the public,” Brown told the Ohio public radio station in the new interview.

In a separate statement released on Wednesday, the senator said the “SAFER Banking Act will ensure that small businesses in the cannabis industry can access banking and other financial services, and keep their workers safe.”

“I look forward to passing this legislation with a bipartisan majority and bringing it to the Senate floor,” he said.

The bill is scheduled for a markup in the Banking Committee on September 27, and he said in a separate interview with Politico on Wednesday that he expects a “strong majority” of his panel to vote in favor of the legislation, which has been retitled and revised following a “long, arduous process” of bipartisan negotiations.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), for his part, has committed to expeditiously advancing the revised marijuana banking bill—and he says he will also push to attach legislation on cannabis expungements and gun rights for medical marijuana patients when it reaches the floor.

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