Statehouse rotunda with marijuana leaf superimposed on top

The past year marked many major milestones for marijuana. Michigan voters passed an adult use ballot measure in November 2018, with the first business licenses issued on December 1. In June, Illinois became the second Midwest state to go full legal, doing so via legislature. Federally, the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed the Safe Banking Act in September, the first step to opening this system to cannabusinesses. Then, just days ago, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act easily passed out of U.S. House Judiciary Committee and onto the House floor for a full vote. This groundbreaking legislation would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), require federal courts to expunge records for prior marijuana convictions and basically end the drug war.

The pillars of prohibition are crumbling.

And as always, Ohio trails the pack. The Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program (OMMCP) officially kicked off in January when the Ohio Board of Pharmacy awarded the first Certificates of Operation to four dispensaries … two and a half years after the program was slated to be “fully operational.” Missed deadlines, high prices, short supplies, disparate dispensaries, convoluted metrics and product recalls have plagued the program, some panning it as “Keystone Kops” regulation.

So, it should surprise no one that Ohio’s cannabis aficionados look for ways to gain greater, cheaper, better, broader access to the plant.

Enter Ohio Representative Juanita Brent (D-12). Those who follow this issue remember her as a champion of hemp in the House. An August issue of Hannah News mentioned a bill, “likely to be introduced in October,” that would allow individuals age 21 and older to legally consume cannabis. OK, another missed deadline, although the intent was real.

During that month, Rep. Brent held two interested party meetings, one for aficionados and one for the industry. Her “Adult Use Cannabis Bill” served as the subject. Major points included:

  • Consolidation of the outdated terms “marijuana” and “marihuana” under “cannabis” in the Revised Code and Administrative Code.
  • Vacated sentences by application of those convicted of or in jail for possession offenses.
  • A “Division of Cannabis Control” under the Department of Commerce to regulate the industry.
  • Two types of growers: Class A (100 plants max, application fee $100 and license fee $1,000) and Class B (500 plants max, application fee $100 and license fee $5,000). Processors and retailers would pay same fees as Class A growers.
  • Personal cultivation of 12 plants max, with registration mandated in the county of residence.
  • No employee discrimination for off duty use, although employers may discipline violations  of workforce drug policies.
  • A 5% tax on gross receipts of cannabis retailers and businesses.

The prospects for passage? Always hopeful, but sadly realistic. The legislative pathway under a Republican dominated state government may be exhausted for the time being. Tim Johnson, who has lobbied for all recent cannabis bills, put it this way, “Legislators are a hot mess right now. They don’t understand what adult choice/recreational cannabis even means. The OMMCP and the Hemp Program have them thinking all is well. They just don’t get it.” He went on to suggest that passage of the MORE Act may help mollify statehouse minds.

The question becomes, is there another pathway to full legal? Ballot initiatives? Yes and no.

Ballot issues embody some of the greatest failures in changing state law. Can you say Responsible Ohio in 2015? No issue pertaining to drug policy has ever passed, and most die on the vine of scant funding

The most recent attempt, the Marijuana Rights and Regulations Amendment, was certified for signature gathering in May 2018. Ohio Families for Change, the organization fielding the initiative, targeted the measure for the November 2019 ballot. Yep, another missed deadline. Earlier this year, they suspended their campaign and folded their PAC, with no plans for 2020. The reason? Scant funding.

And that’s an important point. The cost to place an issue on the ballot can rise to $20 million or more, only to lose on election day. The citizen led ballot initiative process has become so cumbersome and unaffordable that few, if any, attempts at changing state law outside of the legislature stand a chance of success. And if legislators don’t get it, how does Ohio catch up to neighbors like that state up north?

Perhaps enactment of the federal Safe Banking Act or the MORE Act will serve as legislative light bulb moments. Removing cannabis from the CSA, expunging federal records and ending the drug war would go a long way toward helping Ohio law makers understand the meaning of adult choice. Full legal at the federal level may well be the only means of getting them out of the “hot mess” that has continually characterized the cannabis legalization process in Ohio.

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