Ohio lawmakers will not be amending the state’s voter-approved marijuana law this year despite a Republican-led push to expedite changes. The Senate has passed a bill to make changes, and a House committee has held a series of hearings on a different proposal, but the legislature will not be sending any reform measure to the governor’s desk by the time lawmakers head home for the holiday break this week.
The House Finance Committee took public testimony on a cannabis legalization amendment bill from Rep. Jamie Callender (R) on Wednesday, marking its third hearing in the panel. But members did not vote before adjourning.
This comes as Senate Republicans have worked to advance a separate revision package that’s sparked significant pushback from advocates and stakeholders who feel it would undermine the will of voters who approved legalization at the ballot last month. That legislation cleared the chamber, but it has not yet been considered in the House.
The House bill is considered more palatable to reform supporters, as it’d make less sweeping changes to what voters approved on the November ballot—especially compared to the Senate legislation that initially called for the elimination of home cultivation and an indefinite delay on basic legalization provisions. That latter measure was significantly altered amid criticism last week, but it’s still facing sizable opposition.
Senate President Matt Huffman (R) originally aimed to pass the bill under an emergency prior to legalization taking effect last week, but that didn’t happen according to his timeline. House Speaker Jason Stephens (R), meanwhile, has said he doesn’t see the need to rush amending the initiated statute given that sales won’t begin until later in 2024.
The GOP House and Senate leaders have disagreed on certain procedural issues related to amending the marijuana law such as the timeline for enactment, but they’ve both generally expressed support for the idea of making changes such as revising the tax structure, preventing public consumption and deterring impaired driving.
In the House Finance Committee, meanwhile, members heard another round of testimony from advocates and stakeholders, who discussed concerns about the bill’s proposed revenue allocations, the possibility of increased criminalization for activity such as sharing marijuana and the impact of the legislation on the state’s existing hemp and medical cannabis markets.
The House speaker said the full chamber would not be voting on Callender’s proposal on Wednesday, nor would it be concurring on the separate cannabis bill passed by the Senate last week. The legislature is scheduled to reconvene in mid-January.
“It’s just such a big change in Ohio’s law that we need to be deliberate and we need to respect that there are concerns from the administration and the Senate, and we respect those concerns,” Stephens said. “Most of the provisions of Issue 2 don’t come into effect until the summer, so that’s really why you don’t see that sense of urgency.”
“There are some provisions that some like and some don’t and it’s trying to work through that process,” he said of the competing marijuana proposals. “Generally speaking, we want to maintain the will of the people. It’s an extremely important thing for a lot of members on both sides of the aisle.”
The Senate proposal has a different trajectory. It was first attached to a non-controversial House-passed bill before being amended and approved in the Senate General Government Committee and then on the floor.
Advocates are more concerned about the Senate plan. While it was significantly revised from its original form in committee—restoring home cultivation, for example—reform advocates say it still undermines the will of voters who passed the legalization initiative at the ballot last month.
Top Republicans, including Gov. Mike DeWine (R), have insisted that voters were only supportive of the fundamental principle of legalizing marijuana without necessarily backing specific policies around issues such as tax revenue.
“I think that people did not vote for the situation that we’re going to have if we don’t change it. And that is that it’s legal now to possess marijuana, legal to use it, but you can’t buy it legally,” DeWine said on Monday, expressing support for the Senate bill that would let adults purchase cannabis from existing medical dispensaries in three months, rather than wait for retailers to open later next year.
Stephens said the expedited sales timeline is “something to consider” and “not a horrible idea,” though there are still questions about how to administratively implement the change. Likewise, he said both chambers agree with the Senate’s proposal to facilitate expungements for prior cannabis convictions, saying “it’s just a matter of how.”
Here how the House bill from Callender, HB 354, would change Ohio’s marijuana law:
- Keep home grow option for up to six plants per adult and 12 plants per household.
- Prohibit sharing of marijuana between adults, including giving away home-grown cannabis.
- In addition to the original 10 percent excise tax on marijuana sales, the bill would impose a 10 percent tax on cultivators’ gross receipts.
- Revenue from the cultivator tax would go toward creating and renovating jails (36 percent), county sheriffs in areas with at least one cultivator (36 percent), law enforcement training (23 percent) and a crime victims assistance fund (five percent).
- Redirect tax revenue from social equity programs to counties for the purposes of funding equity grants and a job placement program, as well as “any other purpose that involves community engagement, economic development, or social programming.”
- Another 36 percent would go to local governments with cannabis shops, 12.5 percent would support the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline, 10 percent would fund mental health treatment in county jails, three percent would cover administrative costs of regulating the cannabis market and 2.5 percent would go to a substance misuse treatment fund.
- Ban public smoking and restrict advertising in a manner similar to how tobacco and alcohol products are treated.
Here’s what the revised Senate-passed measure, HB 86, would do to the state’s marijuana law:
- Allow adults to grow up to six plants, but limit households to a total of six instead of 12.
- Only legalize possession of marijuana from retailers or home-cultivated products.
- Permit existing medical cannabis dispensaries to start serving adult-use consumers within 90 days of enactment, rather than nine months under Issue 2’s provisions.
- Prohibit sharing of marijuana between adults.
- Require the state attorney general to create a process to reimburse people for costs associated with proactively petitioning the court for expungements of prior convictions involving possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis.
- Eliminate social equity revenue fund and redirect significant portions of revenue toward law enforcement training.
- Raise marijuana excise tax to 15 percent (up from 10 percent) and allow local governments to levy an additional tax of up to three percent.
- Allocate $15 million in marijuana tax revenue annually to go toward facilitating expungements.
- Remaining revenue would go to a Department of Public Safety law enforcement training (16 percent), an attorney general’s office law enforcement training fund (14 percent), drug law enforcement fund (five percent), poison control fund (two percent), substance misuse treatment (nine percent), suicide hotline services (nine percent), jail construction and renovation (28 percent), safe driver training (five percent) and more.
- Reduce THC cap on adult-use marijuana extracts to 50 percent, rather than 90 percent under Issue 2.
- Lower canopy limits on cultivation facilities.
- Remove anti-discrimination provisions concerning cannabis consumer rights in child custody and eligibility for organ transplants.
- Mandate strict rules on transporting and storing cannabis.
- Impose a three-day mandatory minimum jail sentence for passengers who consume marijuana in a car.
In contrast, here’s what Issue 2 would accomplish as passed by voters:
- Legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, who could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates.
- Grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.
- Impose 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).
- Establish a Division of Cannabis Control 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.”
- Give 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.
- Require regulators 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.”
- The measure includes a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.
While some Democratic lawmakers have indicated that they may be amenable to certain revisions, such as putting certain cannabis tax revenue toward K-12 education, other supporters of the voter-passed legalization initiative are firmly against letting legislators undermine the will of the majority that approved it.
Ohio Rep. Juanita Brent (D) recently emphasized that people who’ve been criminalized over marijuana, as well as those with industry experience, should be involved in any efforts to amend the state’s voter-approved legalization law, arguing that it shouldn’t be left up to “anti-cannabis” legislators alone to revise the statute.
Meanwhile, Rep. Gary Click (R) filed legislation earlier this month that would allow individual municipalities to locally ban the use and home cultivation of cannabis in their jurisdictions and also revise how state marijuana tax revenue would be distributed by, for example, reducing funds allocated to social equity and jobs programs and instead steering them toward law enforcement training.
Rep. Cindy Abrams (R) also introduced a bill last month that would revise the marijuana law by putting $40 million in cannabis tax dollars toward law enforcement training annually.
The Ohio Department of Commerce was quick to publish an FAQ guide for residents to learn about the new law and timeline for implementation, though regulators repeatedly noted that the policies may be subject to change depending on how the legislature acts.
Prohibitionist organizations that campaigned against Issue 2, meanwhile, are set on a fundamental undermining of the newly approved law, with some describing plans to pressure the legislature to entirely repeal legalization before it’s even implemented.
For what it’s worth, a number of Ohio lawmakers said in September that they doubted the legislature would seek to repeal a voter-passed legalization law. The Senate president affirmed repeal wasn’t part of the agenda, at least not in the next year.
Voters were only able to decide on the issue after lawmakers declined to take the opportunity to pass their own reform as part of the ballot qualification process. They were given months to enact legalization that they could have molded to address their outstanding concerns, but the legislature ultimately deferred to voters by default.
As early voting kicked off in late October, the GOP-controlled Senate passed a resolution urging residents to reject measure.
Unlike the top state Republican lawmakers, one of the state’s GOP representatives in Congress—Rep. Dave Joyce, co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in September that he would be voting in favor of the initiative in November. He encouraged “all Ohio voters to participate and make their voices heard on this important issue.”
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said in late October he voted in favor of the legalization ballot initiative, calling it a “hard decision” but one that was based on his belief that the reform would promote “safety” for consumers.
Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, said he voted against a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Ohio because he’s concerned the federal government could “weaponize” criminalization against people who are engaged in state-legal cannabis activities under the “fake” pretense that they’re protected from federal prosecution.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), for his part, said recently that Ohio’s vote to legalize marijuana at the ballot is one of the latest examples of how Americans are rejecting “MAGA extremism,” and he added that he’s committed to continuing to work on a bipartisan basis “to keep moving on bipartisan cannabis legislation as soon as we can.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told Marijuana Moment that “the vote in Ohio was a great big exclamation point on the things we’ve been talking about.”
“We’ve been saying for years how this issue has crested, how it’s got broad momentum, how it is inclusive. It’s sort of like the success with the [Ohio abortion rights] issue—except this was more pronounced,” he said. “We got more votes than the abortion issue. We get more votes than anybody on the ballot.”
The White House has separately said that “nothing has changed” with President Joe Biden’s stance on marijuana, declining to say if he supports Ohio’s vote to legalize or whether he backs further reform of federal cannabis laws.
Meanwhile, as Ohio voters approved statewide legalization, activists also chalked up a series of little-noticed wins to decriminalize larger amounts of cannabis in three Ohio cities, according to preliminary county election results. (Full Story)