In a stunning reversal, Ohio’s GOP-controlled Senate passed a revised bill that in many ways would expand the voter-approved marijuana legalization law that goes into effect on Thursday—by allowing adults to start buying cannabis from existing medical dispensaries in as soon as 90 days, maintaining home cultivation rights and providing for automatic expungements of prior convictions, among other changes.
Just days after the Senate General Government Committee advanced legislation to fundamentally undo key provisions of the cannabis initiative voters passed at the ballot last month—proposing to eliminate the home grow option and delaying legalization for at least one year until adult-use retailers started sales, for example—the panel dramatically walked back the measure and passed it in a unanimous bipartisan voice vote on Wednesday.
The full Senate then approved the legislation in a vote of 28-2.
Although the Senate has moved quickly to institute changes to the legalization law before it takes effect on Thursday, it is not clear if the House is also ready to make any reforms on an expedited basis—meaning that one form of legal cannabis could take effect this week only to potentially be reformed within a matter of days.
The overhaul of the measure comes one day after the Senate panel held a hearing and received public testimony on the initial proposal, with many advocates and stakeholders expressing frustration with the seeming undermining of voters’ decision and recommending changes such as freeing up medical cannabis dispensaries to start servicing adult consumers while regulators develop rules to license recreational retailers.
Sen. Rob McColley (R) detailed the latest changes following negotiations during an extensive recess in committee on Wednesday, stating that lawmakers’ focus “needs to be stamping out the black market” and also “protecting the access that the people of Ohioans voted for,” while ensuring that the administrative implementation “runs as efficiently as it possibly can, while protecting opportunities for for Ohioans to engage in this new industry.”
Committee Chairman Michael Rulli (R) said that over “the last three or four days, a lot of the public has reached out to probably every single one of our senators with thousands of emails and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of calls.”
“I think the people have spoken,” he said.
Rather than do away with home cultivation, the committee-approved legislation would maintain adults’ right to grow up to six plants per person, though it would cap the household limit at six plants rather than 12 as set by the initiated statute.
As initially attached to an unrelated-House passed bill on alcohol regulations earlier this week, the measure would have effectively re-criminalized possession of marijuana unless it was obtained from a state-licensed retailer, which couldn’t start sales for at least one year from the effective date. That change was removed and replaced with language to “immediately” permit adults to buy cannabis from existing dispensaries as the adult-use market is established, McColley said. That could happen within 90 day’s of the bill’s passage, he explained.
Strikingly, the committee also revised the bill to provide for automatic expungements of certain prior cannabis-related convictions—a reform strongly favored by advocates that was not included in the Issue 2 initiative that voters approved, in large part due to a single-subject restriction for ballot measures.
Gov. Mike DeWine (R), speaking to reporters shortly after the committee vote, said that while he did not support the legalization ballot initiative, “we have an obligation to follow the will of the people, unless that’s changed at some point.”
“But we also have an obligation to make this work and to try to protect people who don’t want to be exposed to marijuana smoke, but also the people who are consuming marijuana to make sure that it is pure, that it is in fact it is safe,” he said. “I think it’s a very, very good bill. And, you know, it’s an imperative that this thing get passed. What we don’t want is a situation where the black market grows.”
The amended bill, as compared to the prior draft, restores the cap on marijuana retailers to 350, slightly increases the THC limit on cannabis extracts (though not to the level approved by voters) while restoring the original THC cap on flower, maintains a ban on sharing home cultivated marijuana among adults and makes revisions to the tax rate and revenue allocation, in part to support the facilitation of automatic expungements of convictions involving possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.
The marijuana excise tax would be set at 15 percent (up from 10 percent under the initiated statute), and local governments could levy an additional tax of up to three percent. The proposed 15 percent cultivator tax that was originally in the amendment package was removed.
The legislation calls for $15 million in marijuana tax revenue to go toward expungements. The 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.
Because the cannabis language was attached to a non-controversial House-passed measure on alcohol regulations, it only needs a concurrence vote in the House. That’s not expected to happen according to the expedited timeline that Senate President Matt Huffman (R) has said he wants, however, meaning adults 21 and older will simply be able to legally possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants beginning on Thursday.
Huffman and other top Republicans, including the governor, 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. That argument has increasingly faced pushback from advocates and stakeholders, however.
Meanwhile, the House is looking at a different marijuana legalization amendment proposal filed by Rep. Jamie Callender (R). The House Finance Committee took up that legislation—which would preserve home grow and other key components of the voter-passed initiative, while making other changes opposed by advocates—in its own hearing on Wednesday.
“I want to address to the governor and the president of the Senate directly,” Callender said at Wednesday’s hearing. “They have a concern that we need to get something done before midnight tonight passed by both chambers and signed by the governor. The only thing that goes into effect tonight at midnight—that is the effective date of this initiative statute—will be the home grow and the possession amounts, two and a half ounces and six plants per household or 12 per family.”
“In the negotiations, our position has been that those two items were fundamental to what the people voted on. So even if, and hopefully when, we reach an agreement with the governor in the Senate, as long as those two things remained the same as the people voted for it, there is no drop-dead date of today.”
While it would also keep home grow, the bill from Callender, who introduced another bipartisan bill to legalize marijuana this session, would add residency requirements for where plants can be cultivated to avoid “multiple individuals aggregating their home grow plants into a single location, in essence creating an unofficial cultivation facility,” the sponsor said in written testimony.
The legislation would further strictly prohibit sharing of marijuana between adults, including giving away home-grown cannabis. And it would add advertising and marketing restrictions that Callender said would align marijuana rules with those in place for alcohol and tobacco.
In addition to the 10 percent excise tax on marijuana sales, the House 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 sponsor said on Wednesday that he expects “we will probably have some discussions and amend” the tax provisions and “possibly other things as they come up that I’m not even aware of” before the legislation advances through the House committee next week.
“Back in November, the voters of Ohio approved Issue 2 by a margin of 56.97 percent to allow adult use cannabis in Ohio,” Callender said in his testimony. “HB 354 does not aim to change the intent of Issue 2 or override the will of the voters. Instead, it aims to add clarification for the departments who will be tasked with administering and regulating adult use cannabis in Ohio.”
“Another reason for not trying to cram something through today but rather thoughtfully approach what we’re doing [is to] make sure we have buy-in from everybody—that everyone is comfortable with what we’re doing and that we can move forward unified,” he said. “We want to respect the integrity of what the people voted on—but we have a lot of flexibility within that framework.”
Callender also took a question about cannabis expungements and said he’s “very supportive” of the reform, referencing separate bipartisan legislation on the issue, and he’s not opposed to adding it to his amendment measure. However, “my goal is to have a very broad-based support” so it may need to be handled separately.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Finance Committee Chairman Jay Edwards (R) said that while he was “ardent against Issue 2 that we just voted on, I do think that I will put my foot down and respect the will of the voters.”
“Does that mean that we need to make changes? Yeah, there probably are some changes that need made,” he said. “But I think as a chair of this committee and bills that run through this committee, I will do my best to make sure that we respect the will of the voters. November’s over with—that election is over with.”
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—hasn’t weighed 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.
—Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.—
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.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
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