Ohio senators held a second meeting on a bill to significantly change the state’s marijuana legalization law that’s set to take effect this week, hearing public testimony amid sharp criticism of the GOP-led effort. In other chamber, meanwhile, a Republican representative has filed alternative legislation that would largely preserve what voters approved at the ballot, with certain exceptions such as a proposed ban on sharing cannabis between adults.
One day after the Senate General Government Committee gave initial approval to the cannabis overhaul measure, voting to attach it to an unrelated House-passed bill, the panel reconvened on Tuesday to take testimony, hearing from business owners, advocates and legalization opponents.
The legislation—which Senate President Matt Huffman (R) hopes to advance to the floor as early as Wednesday, before legalization takes effect on Thursday—would make fundamental alternations of the voter-passed initiated statute.
For example, it would eliminate a home grow option for adults, criminalize the use and possession of marijuana obtained outside of a licensed retailer, reduce the possession limit, raise the sales tax on cannabis and steer funding away from social equity programs and toward law enforcement. The bill also contains substantive amendments related to THC limits, public consumption and changes to hemp-related rules that stakeholders say would “devastate” the market.
Advocates have sharply criticized the GOP-controlled chamber over the proposal, arguing that it disrespects the will of voters, especially as it concerns the elimination of home cultivation and changes to possession rules.
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.
The committee chairman, Sen. Michael Rulli (R), told the packed room of testifiers on Tuesday that he “strongly” suggested they “lower the temperature,” offering his assurances that lawmakers “understand the problems with homegrown and with taxes and how do we fix that and how do we get the people’s wishes.”
Rulli and other members asked several witnesses about how to most effectively mitigate the illicit market, including the possibility of allowing existing medical cannabis dispensaries to start selling to adult consumers before recreational retailers are licensed.
The chairman also expressed interest in addressing the lack of regulations around hemp-based intoxicating products, though he said it was unlikely to be tackled under the bill at hand given the expedited timeline they’re working with.
The panel heard testimony from several representatives of advertising companies who expressed opposition to the bill’s outright ban on billboard media for cannabis businesses, saying the industry should be subject to the same rules as alcohol.
“Discounting that the voters know about things I think is always a bad decision,” Sen. Bill DeMora (D) said at the hearing, pushing back on his colleagues pushing for major changes. “Voters spoke—and in my district voters [there was a] 70 percent approval rating—and for me to say that ‘voters be damned because they didn’t know what they’re talking about’ is a bit egotistical on my part.”
In addition to removing a home grow option for adults, it appears the bill would re-criminalize use and possession of marijuana if the product is obtained outside of a licensed retailer. And those retailers couldn’t open for at least one year after the effective date, so possession would effectively remain illegal under any circumstances until that point.
There’s no mandate for regulators to license retailers by a certain date, so it’s unclear when it would become legal to possess cannabis under the legislation.
The legislation would further increase the excise tax rate on marijuana sales from 10 percent to 15 percent at the point of sale, in addition to a 15 percent gross receipts tax on cultivators. And it would fundamentally restructure the tax revenue distributions, removing funding for social equity initiatives and challenging dollars to law enforcement, for example.
Daniel Kessler, CEO of the Ohio cannabis cultivator company Riviera Creek Holding, strongly opposed the proposed tax increase, calling it a “huge gift to the entire illicit market.”
“For the illicit market to fail, the regulated market must thrive,” he said.
The bill is scheduled to be taken up by the committee again on Wednesday, at which point members are expected to potentially send it to the floor.
In the opposite chamber, meanwhile, Rep. Jamie Callender (R) filed separate legislation that would make certain changes to the voter-approved legalization initiative—but it would maintain key components such as home cultivation.
On that issue, the lawmaker said the “middle ground is we do what the people voted and told us to do, which is six plants per person and 12 per household.”
“There has been some other legislation and proposals floating around that, in my opinion, have not respected the will of the voters real well, and I want to make sure that here in this chamber, the people’s house, that we carry out the will of the people—and the people have spoken,” he told The Toledo Blade.
However, the bill from Callender, who introduced another bipartisan bill to legalize marijuana this session, would strictly prohibit sharing of marijuana between adults, including giving away home-grown cannabis.
In addition to the 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).
For the sales tax revenue, the 36 percent that Issue 2 allocated to social equity programs would instead go 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.
The proposal would additionally ban public smoking and restrict advertising in a manner similar to how tobacco and alcohol products are treated.
“If this passes there would be no change” to possession and home grow provisions, Callender said. “No one would potentially lose a pre-existing right.”
But Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment that while Callender’s bill “isn’t as outrageous that the Senate bill’s complete gutting of legalization, it is also an affront to voters.”
“It re-criminalizes passing a joint, doubles excise taxes to fund jails and law enforcement, and diverts funding from reparative justice to counties,” she said. “Voters have spoken. They want to expand freedom and justice, not to restrict it.”
House Speaker Jason Stephens (R)—who has maintained that legislators should more thoughtfully address amendments to the initiated statute, even if that takes more time—didn’t weigh in on the merits of Callender’s bill but said “we will have discussions on that.”
“There are a lot of different ideas that are going on about it and we’ll continue the discussion,” he said.
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 last week 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)