As early voting kicked off in Ohio on Wednesday, the state Senate passed a GOP-led resolution urging voters to reject a marijuana legalization measure that’s on the ballot.
Introduced by Sens. Mark Romanchuk (R) and Terry Johnson (R), and cosponsored by 14 other Senate Republicans, SR 216 lists a parade of horribles that lawmakers say would befall the state if the cannabis ballot initiative known as Issue 2 becomes law.
“The proposed statute authored by the commercial marijuana industry,” it says, “does not serve the best interests of the people of Ohio, will bring unacceptable threats and risks to the health of all Ohioans, especially children, will create dangers in the workplace and unacceptable challenges and costs to employers, will make Ohio’s roads more dangerous, will impose significant new, unfunded costs to Ohio’s public social services, and serves only to advance the financial interests of the commercial marijuana industry and its investors.”
Nearly three in five state voters said they support adult-use legalization in a poll commissioned by the campaign and published late last month. That’s consistent with the results of other recent independent surveys.
The Senate’s dire warnings, which do not cite any supporting data, represent a selective reading of the available evidence around marijuana legalization.
The resolution asserts, for example, that marijuana “is a ‘gateway’ drug, and research shows that four out of ten regular marijuana users go on to experiment with other drugs,” claiming—apparently inaccurately—that drug overdoses “have been the leading cause of injury and death in Ohio” since 2007. It says that “33,000 Ohioans have died of drug overdoses between 2011 and 2020.”
According to Ohio’s Department of Health, however, COVID-19 has so far killed more than 42,000 people in the state.
In 2017, drug overdose deaths killed roughly as many people in Ohio as Alzheimer’s disease—the state’s seventh leading cause of death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What’s more, a growing body of research has demonstrated that for some people, cannabis serves as an offramp, used as an alternative to addictive prescription medications and illicit drugs. A recent study, for example, found that marijuana was “significantly associated” with reduced use of unprescribed opioids.
The GOP resolution also claims that legalization would lead to more emergency room visits for children, increased risk of young people developing psychosis, lower intelligence and learning ability, more car crashes, higher crime rates, a bigger illicit cannabis market and “great risks at the workplace to employers, other workers, customers, and others.”
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And it attacks the measure’s social equity provisions, which would support prioritization of and jobs programs for applicants most impacted by the war on drugs.
“The commercial marijuana industry’s proposed law,” the resolution says, “would steer more than one-third of tax revenue back to the industry itself in the form of a so-called ‘social equity’ program.”
Tom Haren, a spokesperson for the Yes on Issue 2 campaign, dismissed the claims in an email to Marijuana Moment.
“The opponents of Issue 2 continue to resort to lies, hyperbole, and Reefer Madness talking points because they know they can’t tell Ohio voters the truth,” Haren said. “Issue 2 will benefit all of Ohio by ending the injustice of marijuana prohibition, providing access to medical marijuana to those Ohioans that still cannot participate in our medical program, and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue. All while driving the illicit market out of business.”
The reform, he added, “will be decided by everyday Ohioans—not career politicians and lobbyists—because Ohioans know that voting yes on Issue 2 is the best way to protect public health.”
Opponents of legalization, meanwhile, applauded GOP lawmakers “for taking a strong stand in defense of our state.”
“The risks that recreational marijuana poses to Ohioans’ health, safety and workplaces was again laid out in clear and stark terms today in the Ohio Senate,” Angela Phillips, a member of the steering committee for Protect Ohio Workers and Families, said in a press release. “This deal is rigged far too one-sided to the marijuana industry’s benefit. It won’t turn out well for Ohio and we’ll be forced to live with the consequences for a very long time.”
Here are the key provisions of the legalization ballot measure on the November 7 ballot:
- 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.
Both sides of the campaign have been stepping up messaging and get-out-the-vote efforts as the election draws nearer. Last week the yes campaign sent cease and desist letters to TV stations airing what organizers called opposition advertisements “filled with lies.” And the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the primary backer of Issue 2, put out an election ad of its own.
Attorney General Dave Yost (R), meanwhile, published an analysis of the initiative that he said is meant to provide voters with “vital clarity and transparency” amid a campaign that has seen “inflamed and inaccurate” rhetoric.
Despite the GOP-led resolution, other Republicans officials in Ohio remain divided on the issue. Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said in August, for example, that 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.”
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), who was Colorado’s governor in 2012, said last year that while he was initially concerned that legalization would encourage more use by young people, he now believes those worries were unfounded.
“I think we’ve proven and demonstrated that there is no increase in experimentation among teenagers. There is no change in frequency of use, no change in driving while high,” Hickenlooper said. “All the things we most worried about didn’t come to pass.”
One of Ohio’s Republican representatives in Congress, for his part, is in favor of the policy change. A spokesperson for Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, previously told Marijuana Moment that the representative “is supportive of the measure and plans to vote yes.”
If the initiative becomes law, that would bring the total number of states with adult-use legalization to 24.
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. But it has yet to advance, and now the stage is set for voters to make the choice.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.