Ohio Cannabis Legalization: Early Voting Amid Contentious Campaign

    Ohio voters are already starting to decide on a ballot measure to legalize cannabis for adult use. Early voting began on October 11, with election day on November 7. But while most voters appear to back legalization, Republican state lawmakers are vowing to fight it even if the measure succeeds.

    The State Senate, dominated by Republicans, has passed a resolution urging voters to reject the measure. And Senate President Matt Huffman (R) went a step further, warning that if it passes, “this initiated statute is coming right back before this body” for review and potential changes.

    “We’re going to have a mental health crisis on our hands” in the event of legalization, Huffman claimed. “We are going to pay for this for years and years and years, and it’s only going to get worse.” He also claimed, contrary to evidence from other states, that legalization would give children easier access to canabbis and cause a spike in teenage suicides.

    Other GOP lawmakers have blasted the bill’s requirement for tax money to be spent on substance use disorder treatment, with Senator Terry Johnson (R), saying, “They must’ve been smoking dope when they wrote it.”

    “There are many Republican voters who no doubt are voting yes, and their sentiments are not reflected by their elected officials.”

    “I don’t think it reflects the views of the constituents,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Filter of the lawmakers’ interventions. “I think Republicans are almost evenly split on this issue; there are many Republican voters who no doubt are voting yes, and their sentiments are not reflected by their elected officials in the legislature.”

    Several polls, including those commissioned by media outlets and by the legalization campaign, have shown a majority of Ohio voters backing legalization. The most recent, commissioned by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol and conducted in August by FM3 Research, found 55 percent of respondents supporting the initiative. That figure included 76 percent of Democrats, 47 percent of independents and 42 percent of Republicans.

    Issue 2, as Ohio’s measure is known, would legalize and regulate cultivation, processing, sale, purchase, possession and use of cannabis by adults over 21. The legal limit for possession would be 2.5 ounces of cannabis or up to 15 grams of concentrate. Adults could also grow up to six plants at home, or 12 plants total per household.

    The measure would create a Division of Cannabis Control to manage reviewing and issuing business licenses; 40 cultivator and 50 dispensary licenses would be issued in the first two years, and the agency could later authorize additional licenses. It would also establish a “cannabis social equity and jobs program,” to give priority to certain groups in receiving cultivator and dispensary licenses. These groups would include women, people of color, people with disabilities and those living in areas with high unemployment.

    Aspects of Issue 2 have been criticized by some legalization advocates.

    A 10 percent sales tax would be applied to dispensary sales, and the revenue would be collected in a fund to be applied to four areas: social equity and jobs (36 percent), the host community fund (36 percent), substance use and addiction (25 percent), and the Division of Cannabis Control and tax commissioner (3 percent).

    Legalization would clearly boost access and reduce arrests. But aspects of Issue 2 have been criticized by some legalization advocates.

    One example is how it privileges the state’s existing medical marijuana businesses. Ohio legalized medical marijuana in June 2016 after former Governor John Kasich (R) signed it into law. Since then, over 100 medical dispensaries have opened statewide, and Issue 2 would let these businesses cut the line for adult-use licensure.

    Within nine months of enactment (by September 7, 2024) the state would be required to issue adult-use licenses to any qualifying medical operators. Despite the planned prioritization of social equity applicants among the 50 initial dispensary licenses, this would give some existing medical marijuana businesses first-mover advantage over startups.

    “There’s pros and cons however you roll out retail,” Armentano reflected. “If you want to have a limited time-lag between when legalization is enacted and when the public can legally access product, then taking some portion of existing licensees and having them serve both communities is arguably the most expeditious way to do it.” He cited Maryland, Missouri and Nevada as examples of states that have gone this route, opening adult-use sales in a matter of months by privileging medical operators.

    “If you want to go ahead and set up an entirely new market,” he continued, “that will bring a broader range of players” but takes longer—”a delay that could take several years.” New York and Maine are examples of states taking this approach, which is not without its own problems.

    Many advocates are also disappointed that Issue 2 doesn’t include automatic expungement of marijuana criminal records. A criminal record is often a barrier to housing, jobs, education and more—which is why many other states with legal cannabis, like California, New York and Missouri, promise to expunge records for acts that are no longer illegal, and to make the government bear the time and cost of doing so (at least, that’s the promise).

    In Ohio’s measure, the only commitment is to use cannabis tax dollars to “study and fund judicial and criminal justice reform,” more specifically by using social equity funds to support expungement and record-sealing.

    Armentano agreed that this could be seen as a major omission from Issue 2. But he added that in nearly every other state that has legalized, even those that initially mandated automatic expungement had to come back and pass additional laws or regulations to make it a reality.

    A law signed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) in January does protect people with certain marijuana records from being required to disclose them; allows those with misdemeanor records to petition a court to seal them after one year; and allows county prosecutors’ offices to vacate minor misdemeanor drug charges on people’s behalf.

    Will the abortion measure, Issue 1, turn out a higher proportion of Democratic and progressive-leaning voters?

    One factor that might influence the Issue 2 outcome, besides being of huge importance in its own right, is that Ohio is the only state to have a direct vote on abortion access this year, via Issue 1.

    Issue 1 would establish an affirmative right to abortion, contraception, miscarriage care and fertility treatment in the Ohio constitution; if voters reject it, abortion access would be left up to lawmakers and the courts. This comes months after a special election in August, when Ohio voters rejected a constitutional change that would have raised the threshold for passing an amendment by popular vote to be higher than 51 percent. The surprise failure of the special election, first set by Republican state lawmakers, was seen by political observers as a vote in favor of abortion access.

    In an era of striking political outcomes after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it remains to be seen whether Issue 1 will turn out a higher proportion of Democratic and progressive-leaning voters—likely to also vote for cannabis legalization—or whether anti-abortion sentiment sees Republican and conservative voters mobilize in higher numbers.

    Campaigning on Issue 2 has been contentious. The week before early voting began, the legalization campaign stated that a dark money group was funding two television ads—ads that falsely claimed the initiative has no protections for children, and would try to deceive them into consuming marijuana products by marketing them as candy. On October 5, the legalization campaign announced it was sending a cease-and-desist letter to local TV stations that aired the ads.

    “What seems to be the most coordinated opposition is coming from state business groups.”

    The ads were paid for by Weed Free Kids, a political organization opposing the Ohio measure. Its website doesn’t specify who is running or funding its efforts, simply stating “We are parents, family members and friends. Many of us have or know kids who’ve suffered serious problems with marijuana including addiction, behavior changes, school failures, mental health challenges and family disruption.”

    “What seems to be the most coordinated opposition is coming from state business groups,” Armentano said, without directly commenting on the TV ads. “You have the Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations that have opined that passing Issue 2 will jeopardize workplace safety; that’s not unusual, we’ve seen state chambers of commerce and similar industries come out in opposition to legalization in many other states. If we look at the history, it appears voters are typically not persuaded by those arguments.”


    Photograph by Tim Evanson via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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