Top GOP Ohio Lawmakers And Prohibitionist Groups Push To Overturn Voter-Approved Marijuana Legalization Initiative Or Amend Key Provisions

Top Republican Ohio lawmakers and prohibitionist groups are already plotting ways to water down a marijuana legalization law that voters approved at the ballot on Tuesday, with some proposing changes to specific provisions like tax revenue allocations and others floating an outright repeal.

The legalization initiative passed with about 57 percent of the vote, making Ohio the 24th state in the country to end prohibition, despite calls to reject the measure from the governor and leading lawmakers. Now that the statutory amendment has been approved, however, the message from opponents has been consistent: they plan to relitigate the issue in the GOP-controlled legislature.

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“This statute was written by the marijuana industry and should not be treated as a cash grab for their cash crop at the expense of a state trying to emerge from the opioid epidemic,” Senate President Matt Huffman (R) said in a statement following the vote. “The General Assembly may consider amending the statute to clarify the questionable language regarding limits for THC and tax rates as well as other parts of the statute.”

The plan isn’t surprising, as Huffman said last month that the measure would be “coming right back before this body” for lawmakers to amend if voters approved it. The Senate president said in advance of Election Day that he wouldn’t seek to repeal the legalization law entirely but would instead “advocate for reviewing it and repealing things or changing things that are in it.”

House Speaker Jason Stephens (R) also released a statement on Tuesday, asserting that “now is the time for the legislature to lead on how best to allocate tax revenues while responsibly regulating the industry.”

“Investing in county jail construction and funding law enforcement training across Ohio should be our top priority to make our communities safer,” he said, indicating he would like to shift cannabis revenue toward police and incarceration.

As passed by voters, the initiative calls for a 10 percent sales tax on cannabis sales, with resulting funds being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs, localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area, education and substance misuse programs and administrative costs of implementing the system.

Any attempts to revise the measure will likely come up against resistance from the measure’s supporters in the legislature, including Rep. Casey Weinstein (D), who has championed reform and sponsored bipartisan legalization legislation.

He responded to the Senate president’s call for changes to the law on Tuesday, writing “BRING. IT. ON.”

Once the vote was called, Weinstein told Marijuana Moment that he hopes lawmakers “will heed their call and honor the will of the vote.” But so far, it’s clear that leadership intends to be selective about which parts they’re willing to heed.

Prohibitionist organizations that campaigned against Issue 2, meanwhile, are set on a fundamental undermining of the newly approved law, with some describing plans to pressure the legislature to entirely repeal legalization before it’s even implemented.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) Action President Kevin Sabet said on Tuesday that despite voters passing legalization, the “fight is not over.”

“Given Issue 2 was statutory—not constitutional—lawmakers have authority to make changes to the law,” he said. “They should eliminate the provisions allowing for commercial sales, advertising, and production, at a minimum. National polls show that when given the options of decriminalization and medical use, voters overwhelmingly do not favor recreational sales.”

The idea of banning commercial sales and production—central components of the legalization initiative that a majority of voters comfortably approved—goes significantly further than the more incremental changes that GOP leadership has so far floated in public remarks.

“Notwithstanding these changes, SAM will redouble our efforts to ensure Ohio’s leaders create a strong regulatory framework that protects our young people and puts health and safety above the addiction industry’s profits,” Sabet said. “Ohio should immediately prioritize prevention education, especially in school-age children, enact strict potency caps for THC products, prohibit advertisements aimed at young people, and mandate clear warning labels for all THC products.”

While the national prohibitionist group hasn’t explicitly called for a repeal of the law, one of its key allies on the ground is floating that move as an option.

“It’s a disappointing development but nothing’s over, the venue just shifts from the campaign trail to the Statehouse,” Protect Ohio Workers and Families spokesperson Scott Milburn said on Tuesday. “Support for Issue 2 fell as Ohioans learned how much it’s rigged to merely benefit a handful of big commercial marijuana companies.”

“This ticking time bomb crafted in secret by a Columbus law firm will now be cracked open by the legislature in the full light of day so they can defuse it in an open, public process before it blows up in Ohio’s face,” he said. “It’s a guarantee that wholesale changes await—if not an outright repeal. That would only benefit Ohioans and spare us all a bad case of buyer’s remorse.”

For what it’s worth, a number of Ohio lawmakers said in September that they doubted the legislature would seek to repeal a voter-passed legalization law.

Voters were only able to decide on the issue after lawmaker declined to take the opportunity to pass their own reform as part of the ballot qualification process. They were given months to enact legalization that they could have molded to address their outstanding concerns, but the legislature ultimately deferred to voters by default.

Meanwhile, ahead of the vote, both sides of the campaign stepped up messaging and get-out-the-vote efforts as the election drew near. Last month, the yes campaign sent cease and desist letters to TV stations airing what organizers called opposition advertisements “filled with lies.” And reform advocates put out a pro-Issue 2 election ad of its own.

For his part, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has said he believes “it would be a real mistake for us to have recreational marijuana,” adding that he visited Colorado following its move to legalize in 2012 and saw what he described as an “unmitigated disaster.”

As early voting kicked off late last month, the GOP-controlled Senate passed a resolution urging residents to reject measure.

Unlike the top state Republican lawmakers, one of the state’s GOP representatives in Congress—Rep. Dave Joyce, co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in September that he would be voting in favor of the initiative in November. He encouraged “all Ohio voters to participate and make their voices heard on this important issue.”

The congressman said in a statement to Marijuana Moment on Tuesday that, with the legalization vote, “Ohio voters across the political spectrum made clear that cannabis prohibition is no longer tenable nor the will of the broad electorate.”

“The federal government must not only respect the will of our state and its voters, but support it. I am as invigorated as ever to push and pass common sense reforms that do just that,” he said. “I will continue to center this work around reversing the harms to those who have been unjustly impacted by a near century long prohibition and increasing public safety—which remains inextricably linked to efficient and effective regulations.”

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said late last month he voted in favor of the legalization ballot initiative, calling it a “hard decision” but one that was based on his belief that the reform would promote “safety” for consumers.

Meanwhile, an analysis published in August by Ohio State University researchers found the change could bring in $404 million in annual tax revenue.

Ohio voters rejected a 2015 measure, on a 64–36 vote, that would have amended the state’s constitution to legalize marijuana and give control of the market to a small group of producers. Organizers for the current campaign said they drew on lessons learned from that failure in crafting the current initiative.

Bipartisan Ohio lawmakers filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana in May, offering the legislature another opportunity to take the lead on the reform.

Here are the key provisions of the Ohio legalization ballot measure that was approved: 

The initiative 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.

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