Ohio GOP Senate President Lays Out Process To Revise Marijuana Law, Arguing Voters Didn’t Understand Some Provisions

Ohio GOP Senate President Lays Out Process To Revise Marijuana Law, Arguing Voters Didn’t Understand Some Provisions

Ohio’s Senate president says he is working with bipartisan lawmakers in both chambers to quickly develop and pass legislation to revise the state’s voter-approved marijuana legalization law before key provisions take effect next month, arguing that it’s what “the public generally wants” because voters likely didn’t think through the specifics of the reform they authorized.

While the cannabis initiative passed with 57 percent support at the ballot this month, Senate President Matt Huffman (R) says most voters only had a superficial understanding of the measure, simply deciding “are we going to legalize marijuana or not.”

“Now did the voters, for example, know that there was going to be a preference for licenses to people that have formerly been convicted for selling drugs illegally? Probably not very many people thought of that,” he said in an episode of his “President’s Podcast” that was posted on Friday. “It’s important for the folks to go through here and look to see what changes are going to be made, which we think the public generally wants.”

Americans don’t want lawmakers to infringe on their civil liberties, he said. But they “also want the protections of government, and that’s really the fine line that governments have to find. That’s why generally it’s better to have these things sorted out in the legislature… There needs to be some protection for the public, just like we regulate alcohol.”

Huffman said that the governor called him first thing in the morning after Election Day and said, “we need to talk about this marijuana thing,” and he’s since been working with the office to draft amendments to the initiated statute, while taking suggestions from Senate and House lawmakers.

The Senate president also previewed the process by which legislators are expected to enact the changes within weeks, before legalization of possession and cultivation becomes legal for adults 21 and older on December 7.

Rather than introduce new standalone legislation through regular order, he said the plan is to incorporate the cannabis amendments into an unrelated House-passed bill and use that as the vehicle, sending the revised measure back to the House for a simple concurrence vote.

Lawmakers have floated various proposed changes to provisions concerning issues such as public consumption and tax revenue allocation, for example, Huffman said. But it’s unclear what revisions will ultimately be featured in the final product.

“What we don’t want to do is is have this program exist for a while—people depend on it and they think this is the way it’s going to be—and then we change it,” he said. “What we’d like to do is change it prior to the December 7 enactment date.”

“My expectation is that we’re going to have something on the floor for the House to concur on on December 6,” he said. “This is going to be a process that’s going to happen more quickly than it usually does.”

While the Senate leader, as well as Gov. Mike DeWine (R), have made it clear that they want to see revisions enacted expeditiously, House Speaker Jason Stephens (R) says he doesn’t necessarily see the urgency given that most of the changes that are being discussed aren’t set to be implemented until later next year.

Stephens said last week that it’s “going to be a real challenge” to put together a package of changes to the law within the next few weeks. The Senate is currently only scheduled to meet twice before December 7, and the House has four session days to act.

While the governor has said on several occasions that he does want to see revisions enacted prior to possession and cultivation being legalized, he’s stressed that voters shouldn’t expect any “surprises,” and the proposed revisions that are being discussed would still honor the “spirit” of the reform.

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.

Huffman also confirmed in the new podcast interview that it is not his chamber’s intent to repeal the cannabis measure, at least not in 2024.

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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.

For his part, the governor has previously said he believes “it would be a real mistake for us to have recreational marijuana,” adding that he visited Colorado following its move to legalize in 2012 and saw what he described as an “unmitigated disaster.”

As early voting kicked off late last month, 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 late last month 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 earlier this month 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.

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