As Ohio marijuana reform advocates await final certification of signatures for a legalization initiative they hope to place on the November ballot, an unrelated vote during the state’s special election on Tuesday is being viewed as a bellwether for the cannabis proposal’s passage.
Voters turned out in impressive numbers to defeat Issue 1 on Tuesday. The GOP-backed measure would have raised the threshold to approve constitutional amendments at the ballot from a simple majority to 60 percent—a change that could have undermined an abortion rights measure that voters will decide on in November, possibly alongside the marijuana legalization proposal.
The fact that Issue 1 was rejected by such a significant margin (43-57 percent) is telling. Typically it is the most consistent voters (older people and conservatives) who turn out for special elections during non-presidential years. But with reproductive rights under threat in the fallout of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade last year, progressive voters are motivated to get to the polls to defend those rights.
For Ohio, that will likely benefit the marijuana legalization campaign if their initiative is certified by the secretary of state’s office. It’s already widely believed that putting cannabis reform on the ballot increases turnout, particularly among Democrats. But having both abortion rights and cannabis on the line may prove to be an especially potent combination for turnout this November.
“Yesterday, Ohio voters resoundingly told the state legislature that it demands to have its will and perspective be respected—and that bodes well to strengthen the arguments of the marijuana statutory initiative campaign, in the event of their passage, for the legislature to not dismantle it,” BOWL PAC Founder Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday.
(Disclosure: Strekal supports Marijuana Moment’s work with a monthly pledge on Patreon.)
The cannabis measure on its own may also drive turnout this November if it qualifies, as past election cycles in other states and localities have shown.
Ahead of last year’s election, a Maryland survey found that 61 percent of people who were either unlikely, 50-50 percent likely or probable voters said that they were more likely to vote knowing that legalization was on the ballot. Together, those groups made up 13 percent of the people polled.
A 2018 poll found the 56 percent of Wisconsin voters would be more likely to head to the polls if their local ballot featured a referendum asking them about their support for legalization.
In Ohio, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA), the campaign behind the legalization initiative, turned in a final batch of signatures to the secretary of state’s office last week after coming up short several hundred valid signatures following an initial review of about 220,000 last month, which represented the second major batch it turned in to the state.
The first round, submitted last year, triggered a four-month legislative review period that lawmakers could have used to act on the issue—but they didn’t, which allowed the campaign to begin collecting the second half of the petitions they needed to make the ballot.
Activists initially worked to put the legalization initiative on last year’s ballot, but procedural complications prevented that from happening. Activists turned in enough signatures to trigger the legislative review, but the timing of their initial submission was challenged.
CTRMLA filed suit to force ballot placement, but that was unsuccessful with respect to the 2022 election. However, the state agreed to a settlement that meant they would not have to collect the first round of initial signatures again and that the initiative would be immediately retransmitted to the legislature at the start of the 2023 session.
Here are the key provisions of the legalization ballot measure that may appear on the November 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.
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If the measure is ultimately enacted, that would bring the total number of states with adult-use legalization on the books to 24.
A USA TODAY Network/Suffolk University poll that was published in July found that about 59 percent of Ohioans support legalizing the possession and sale of cannabis for adults 21 and older. Just 35 percent are opposed.
Meanwhile, bipartisan Ohio lawmakers filed a 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.
Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Casey Weinstein (D) introduced the Ohio Adult Use Act, which combined and refined prior legalization proposals that the lawmakers pursued last session on a separate partisan basis.
Callender, who sponsored a separate bill to tax and regulate cannabis in 2021, previously cast doubts on the prospects of legislative reform, signaling that he felt the issue would ultimately need to be decided by voters given the recalcitrance of the legislature.
Ohioans have made clear that they’re ready for a policy change during elections in multiple recent cycles. To date, more than three dozen Ohio localities have enacted decriminalization through the local ballot.
Last November, for example, voters five more cities approved local marijuana decriminalization ballot initiatives. And during a primary election in May, voters in Helena similarly enacted the reform.
Lawmakers might have given up the chance to tackle adult-use marijuana legalization, but the conservative legislature considered major overhauls to the state’s medical cannabis program this session.
Also, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) signed a major criminal justice reform bill in January that will let cities facilitate mass expungements for people with certain drug-related convictions, including marijuana possession of up to 200 grams.
After the law took effect, the mayor of Cleveland said in April that the city will be moving forward with plans to seal thousands of cannabis records.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
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