COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – As the U.S. House turned a new leaf Friday in its vote to legalize marijuana, lawmakers and activists are bracing for what federal legalization – or lack thereof – could mean for Ohio.
Marijuana would automatically become a legal substance in Ohio if the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act is passed by the U.S. Senate and signed into law by President Joe Biden, according to Doug Berman, executive director of Ohio State University’s Drug Policy and Enforcement Center.
But if the bill fails to muster its way through the Senate’s filibuster rules – which Berman said is the most probable scenario – state legislators and interest groups can blaze their own trails in adding Ohio to the list of 18 states where cannabis is legal, he said.
“We are currently set up to kind of move in some kind of sync with the federal rules, but we always can – and in the marijuana space, we already have – charted our own path,” Berman said.
Despite the grim future that awaits the MORE Act, as the bill needs at least 60 votes of approval to avoid a filibuster, Ohio Rep. Casey Weinstein (D-Hudson) said federal attention to legalizing marijuana adds additional momentum to reform efforts in Ohio.
Weinstein introduced House Bill 382 to legalize and levy a tax on marijuana throughout Ohio. He called cannabis less dangerous than alcohol and would allocate tax revenue derived from sales to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by harsh drug sentencing laws.
“You look at Michigan moving ahead of Ohio, we never want to fall behind that state up north,” Weinstein said. “Seeing federal law move ahead in this direction, it’s one of the few issues that has wide bipartisan support.”
A slight majority of Ohioans, 50.4%, support the legalization of recreational marijuana, with 39% opposed and 10% undecided, according to a February 2022 Emerson College poll.
But with previous statements from Gov. Mike DeWine and Republican state leadership signaling their opposition to full legalization, Berman said it’s unlikely that HB 382 and other bills dealing with marijuana legalization will reach it to the House floor for a vote.
“(DeWine) expressed his opposition to full legalization,” Berman said. “And I think he’s likely to be sticking with that in any form for the time being.”
Although it’s unclear whether state and federal lawmaker-proposed legislation will be successful in ending marijuana’s prohibition, Tom Haren, a Cleveland attorney and spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said it’s only a matter of time before it is legalized nationwide.
In the case where marijuana is legalized at the federal level, Haren said Ohio can enact its own policies and procedures surrounding the regulation of marijuana, like how it’s taxed and who can obtain a dispensary license.
That’s why the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol proposed a ballot initiative, currently awaiting consideration before the Ohio General Assembly, to legalize the drug and get a head start on reforming marijuana laws so the state is prepared to enforce federal legalization, Haren said.
“With a Democratic majority in Congress and the White House, the federal government could move sooner than anticipated,” Haren said. “When the feds move, we want to make sure we have a program in place so we don’t have some knee-jerk reaction to what the feds do.”
If the U.S. government removes marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs — where it’s currently classified by the DEA alongside heroin, ecstasy, and other drugs deemed to have a “high potential for abuse” — Haren said marijuana would become legal overnight, untaxed, untested and available anywhere for anyone.
“And, there would be no additional tax revenue generated to the state of Ohio, which is why it’s important for Ohio to be proactive on this issue, anticipating what most people view as inevitable, which is the legalization of marijuana,” Haren said.
In December, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol submitted 206,943 signatures to the Ohio Secretary of State – sufficient to move the group’s proposal, which would legalize the possession, purchase, and sale of marijuana for Ohio adults, to the General Assembly, Haren said.
Ohio lawmakers have until May 28 to consider the coalition’s statute, which would allow Ohioans 21 and older to grow up to six plants with a maximum of 12 per household in a locked, enclosed space not visible to children, according to Haren. The initiative would implement a 10 percent tax on cannabis products, generating about $400 million in annual revenue for Ohio.
Of the $400 million, Haren said about $144 million would go toward social equity and jobs programs in Ohio and about $125 million would be allocated to localities that have adult-use dispensaries.
If the Ohio legislature doesn’t act on the statute by May 28, Haren said the coalition must then collect 132,977 signatures to place the initiative on the ballot in November — leaving the decision to legalize cannabis up to voters.
“The vast majority of polling across the country makes it clear that prohibition is going to end, and it should end – it’s bad policy,” Haren said. “Polling gets more and more favorable. If it’s on the ballot, it will pass.”
The only pathway that Berman sees as a route to full legalization for Ohio in 2022, he said, is the coalition’s ballot initiative. In the chance that voters reject the initiative, he’s convinced that it will be back on the ballot in 2024.
“I think you see more and more politicians themselves getting comfortable with the idea of reform here,” Berman said. “But I still see a lot of hurdles in the months ahead.”