COLUMBUS, Ohio — A direct-democracy attempt to force the state legislature to act on recreational marijuana will have enough signatures by the month’s end to set a plan in motion, an organizer projected Friday.
Ohio attorney Thomas Haren, a representative of the “Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol,” said he expects that enough signatures will be gathered to move a proposal forward that would allow for adult use, sale, and possession of marijuana in Ohio.
“We think that marijuana reform is popular,” he said at a panel hosted by the Ohio State University law school’s Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.
“It’s not a bipartisan issue. It’s a nonpartisan issue.”
The coalition launched what’s known in Ohio as an initiated statute. It proposed the architecture of a recreational marijuana program in Ohio. If state officials determine the coalition gathered the required 133,000 valid signatures, lawmakers in the Ohio General Assembly get four months to act on the proposal. If lawmakers fail, organizers must gather more signatures to send the proposal to a popular vote by the people at the next general election.
The Ohio Ballot Board gave organizers the green light in late August to start gathering signatures.
The proposal allows for the possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana or 15 grams of marijuana extract. Adult Ohioans could purchase marijuana at retail locations or grow two plants at home (four if there are two adults living in the household).
Marijuana has reached a “tipping point” in the U.S. and the time to climb aboard was yesterday, according to Rep. Casey Weinstein, D-Hudson, a lead sponsor of House Democrats’ effort on recreational marijuana.
Nineteen states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for personal use, according to the advocacy group NORML. Gallup polling indicates 68% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, the highest rate since the polling firm began surveying the issue in 1969. Roughly 83% of surveyed Democrats, 71% of independents and 50% of Republicans indicated support. The Washington Post reported this week that while there’s not yet agreement on its breadth, bipartisan members of Congress are working on significant reforms to the nation’s marijuana laws.
“This is a situation where we’re behind where Ohioans are,” Weinstein said, noting that the initiated statute might provide the Legislature with a sense of “urgency.”
Mary Jane Borden, co-founder of the Natural Therapies Education Foundation, said Ohio lawmakers have a long history slow-walking marijuana legislation until direct democracy attempts force them to act.
Between 2000 and 2010, seven marijuana bills were introduced, she said. Only one of them received more than a perfunctory introductory hearing.
In 2016, organizers launched a campaign for a constitutional amendment to allow for the use of medical marijuana in Ohio. They suspended the campaign after Gov. John Kasich signed House Bill 523, which created Ohio’s current program.
While voters are increasingly supportive of marijuana, lawmakers are decidedly agnostic. Borden cited a recent survey of 41 members from Gongwer News Service (the poll had a 31% response rate and doesn’t necessarily represent the full General Assembly). It found among Democrats, 36% support legalization, compared to 14% who don’t and 50% who are undecided. For Republicans, 43% support legalization, compared to 43% who don’t and 14% who are undecided.
“Republicans are more favorable on this issue than we might give them credit for,” Haren, who identified himself as a Republican, said.
With such a mixed take from lawmakers, Borden said the “end-run” of a referendum can spark action.
“What motivated the change [regarding medical marijuana] was obviously the ballot issue,” she said. “Similar to what [Haren] is doing now.”
Alongside Haren, there are three key items to watch regarding marijuana policy in Ohio.
For one, House Democrats Weinstein and Terrence Upchurch, D-Cleveland, introduced legislation of their own, with key differences from the initiated statute proposal. Their bill contains an expungement program, allows possession of up to five ounces of marijuana, and others.
The legislation, introduced in August, has yet to receive its first hearing from the House Finance Committee.
For two, House Republicans have announced a proposal of their own that’s fairly similar to the Democrats’ plan. When they announced the legislation last month, sponsoring Reps. Jamie Callender, R-Concord, and Ron Ferguson, R-Wintersville, acknowledged it’s a moonshot but said they believe they can convince the House Speaker — especially given pressure an initiated statute can provide.
They have yet to formally introduce a bill. A Callender aide said Friday they’re hoping to get a bill out around Thanksgiving but did not have details on any changes from what was announced.
Thirdly, a bipartisan group of Ohio Senators earlier this month proposed a broad expansion of the current medical marijuana program. Their bill would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana whenever they “reasonably” believe a patient might benefit. A Senate committee held its first hearing on the bill last week.