Ohio Legalizes Cannabis: What Did We Learn and What Happens Next?

    Ohio has become the 24th US state to legalize marijuana for adult use. After a contentious campaign, voters firmly approved Issue 2 on November 7—an election day when they also passed Issue 1, guaranteeing abortion rights in the state, in another win of huge significance for a national movement.

    Ohio residents over 21 will now be able to possess cannabis and grow it at home, without fear of arrest and jail. Soon, the state will begin licensing dispensaries where people can legally buy cannabis products.

    With virtually all votes counted, the latest figures from NBC News show Issue 2 winning by a margin of 14 percentage points, with 57 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed. The initiative earned almost 2.2 million votes and won 40 out of 88 counties. Legalization predictably performed well in blue urban areas—like Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, each with over 65 percent—but also won in Trump-supporting suburban and rural counties like Lawrence, Vinton and Hocking. A mostly rural county—Athens, home to Ohio University—saw the state’s highest margin of support, with almost 70 percent in favor.

    “Marijuana legalization is a mainstream, bipartisan issue in America.”

    Today, well over half of US residents—177 million—live in a legal-cannabis jurisdiction.

    “Marijuana legalization is a mainstream, bipartisan issue in America,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Filter. “Frankly it is a dereliction of duty for elected officials, and Republicans especially, to continue to hide their heads in the sand and not take action to comport federal law (and state laws) with what the majority of voters want on this issue.”

    Exit polling from NBC also revealed the sheer diversity of support for legalization in Ohio. It won majorities from men and women; from Black, white and Hispanic/Latino voters; from all age groups under 65; from people with or without college degrees; and from Democrats and independents.

    Of course, there were variations: Support among white voters was lower than for other racial or ethnic groups. Support declined with age, as most over-65s rejected legalization when an overwhelming 84 percent of voters aged 18-29 approved. Despite majority support among people without degrees, most voters who never attended college opposed Issue 2. And while legalization received votes from across the political spectrum, it did poorly among self-identified Republicans (70 percent opposed) and conservatives (77 percent opposed).

    It seems plausible that the presence of Issue 1 on the ballot—with abortion rights one of the nation’s most fiercely contested issues—helped drive to the polls the same younger, left-leaning, educated and diverse coalition that voted yes on Issue 2. The abortion measure won with almost exactly the same level of support: by 56.6 percent to 43.4, with a slightly lower winning margin but slightly higher turnout.

    One notable difference, though, was that Issue 1 won fewer geographic areas: 25 of 88 counties. Political polarization was even more pronounced on the abortion question, with over 90 percent of Democrats in favor and over 80 percent of Republicans opposed. So a small portion of conservative voters rejected abortion rights but approved cannabis legalization; a small portion of left-leaning voters did the opposite.

    Victory for Issue 1 is being celebrated by supporters of abortion rights far beyond Ohio. Armentano thinks its presence might have deflated the percentage of Ohio Republicans supporting Issue 2, though clearly not enough to change the result. “I would say the lower-than-average Republican support was influenced to some degree by the constitutional [abortion rights] amendment also on the ballot,” he said. “I think that drew to the polls Republicans who lean more conservative on social issues, because we see nationally Republican support for legalization typically higher, somewhere around or above 50 percent.”

    There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the national outlook for cannabis reform. A Gallup poll released November 8 shows that a record 70 percent of Americans, including majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans, support legalization.

    “When you look at the map, the number of opportunities to take this issue directly to the people are dwindling.”

    Another major state-level victory may be possible soon: Depending on a state supreme court decision, Florida voters may have the chance to decide on cannabis legalization in 2024—an intriguing prospect in a large, reddening state with competing loyalties to Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.

    But Armentano explained why direct democracy—so important to date in notching cannabis and other drug policy reform wins—won’t bring legalization to all 50 states. “Only about half the states in this country allow for the voter initiative process,” he said. “Of the 24 states that have legalized marijuana, 14 of them have done so by [that process]. So when you look at the map, the number of opportunities to take this issue directly to the people are dwindling. The reality is, in order to move forward in the majority of the 26 remaining states, we need to achieve those changes legislatively.”


    What Issue 2 Will and Won’t Do

    Issue 2 legalizes possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis or 15 grams of concentrate for people over 21. It also allows adults to grow up to six plants at home, or a maximum of 12 plants per household.

    A “Division of Cannabis Control” will now be created to oversee licensing and regulation of cannabis businesses, including cultivators, processors and dispensaries. Within the first two years of implementation, the state is slated to issue a maximum of 40 cultivator and 50 dispensary licenses, with potentially more in future years. The first dispensary licenses are to be issued on September 7, 2024, with the state’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries prioritized to transition to serve adult-use customers.

    Questions will be asked about who will—and won’t—benefit financially from Issue 2.

    Ohio is now also tasked with establishing a “cannabis social equity and jobs program,” to prioritize women, people of color, people with disabilities and those living in high-unemployment areas to receive cannabis business licenses.

    Legalization should certainly reduce arrests and incarceration. But the absence of any provision for automatic expungement of marijuana criminal records is a disappointment to many advocates—even if the inclusion of such provisions often hasn’t guaranteed timely implementation.

    Questions will be asked, too, about who will—and won’t—benefit financially from Issue 2. As in some other states, medical marijuana companies will be getting a head start over people who want to start their first cannabis business. These companies will get the first batch of licenses, speeding up dispensary rollout but shrinking the pool available to the social equity applicants the measure claims will be supported. And even those social equity applicants who do receive an early license are likely to find it difficult to raise the substantial startup funds they’ll need.

    “The finances are nuts to pull this off,” Simon Dunkle of Ohio NORML told Filter. “By the time the small guy gets all his licensing and stuff together, ready to go, he’s got to sell out before he goes bankrupt. They get squeezed to the point where … they don’t have the money to operate and they can’t get it back quick enough.”

    To highlight some of the shortcomings of this law and how to improve it, Ohio NORML is partnering with the Cleveland School of Cannabis to launch a program, “Issue 2 Follow Through: Making Ohio Accountable” in January.

    Implementation could be a whole new battle.

    One potentially helpful aspect of the measure is how it will allocate cannabis tax revenues. It applies a 10 percent sales tax to all dispensary sales, and 36 percent of the money raised is to be used to support social equity and jobs. The sales tax is on the lower side compared to other legal-cannabis states, however, and as yet we have no specifics on what that 36 percent will go to. Directly supporting, training and educating social equity license applicants will likely form a part of it, plus other forms of support for communities with historically high marijuana arrest, which could include criminal record-clearing.

    Another big question is whether the state’s elected Republicans, who have overwhelmingly opposed legalization, will go all-out to try to stop Issue 2 from being implemented, at least in its current form. Senate President Matt Huffman, for example, warned in October that if Issue 2 passed, “this initiated statute is coming right back before this body” for review and potential changes.

    Armentano said no one should underestimate GOP efforts to undermine cannabis legalization by political or legal means. He pointed to examples in Mississippi, Utah and South Dakota where elected Republicans and courts have successfully restricted or completely repealed cannabis reforms. The millions who voted for Issue 2 in Ohio should be aware that victory at the ballot is only the first step. Implementation could be a whole new battle.


    Photograph of Franklin County Early Voting Center by ChrisGoldNY 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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