This week’s introduction in the Ohio General Assembly of an indirect initiative bill to legalize adult-use cannabis is bringing to bear significant political pressure on the Republican-controlled legislature, say cannabis lobbyists, but even so, passage of an adult-use law is far from certain.
“I just don’t see the indirect initiative being accepted by the General Assembly,” said cannabis lobbyist Tim Johnson. “But I do see them going back out and collecting more than enough signatures to put it on the November ballot.”
An old legislative saw, “it’s just a bill”, suggests that proposed legislation is meaningless until it gets signed into law. But three adult-use proposals have all been energized now that 136,729 Ohio citizens have submitted verified signatures supporting passage of adult-use legislation. Now, legislators have to contend with concrete public support as they consider their 2022 reelection campaigns.
Cannabis advocacy group The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol submitted enough petition signatures to Ohio’s Secretary of State for an initiated statute, which allows citizens to submit legislation for consideration by the Ohio legislature. The General Assembly then has four months to consider the submitted bill language. If the legislature does not pass the bill, advocates then can gather additional signatures to turn the proposed legislation into a November general election ballot initiative.
Besides the indirect initiative, there are two other bills under consideration in the House, a Democratic-sponsored bill, and a Republican-sponsored bill. In addition, there is a medical-use expansion bill that has cleared the Senate, which is often considered the more conservative, anti-cannabis of the two chambers.
The Democratic bill allows up to 12 home grow plants per person, includes expungement and decriminalization measures, creates specific adult-use dispensaries, microbusinesses, and tiers of grower licenses, and requires labor peace agreements for licensees. The Republican bill swings in the other direction, leaving the current license structure in place just overlaying the adult-use licenses over medical, and also eliminates the state’s 15% diversity requirement for license distribution. The indirect initiative bill falls between those two, by creating new adult-use licenses, but awarding many automatically to medical license holders, allows up 6 home grow plants per person, and creates a social equity program funded by adult-use taxes. Neither the GOP bill or indirect initiative bill include expungement language.
“I’m not making bets, but my sense is Gov, Mike DeWine, a fairly popular and potent administrator, has messaged that he doesn’t have room to support adult use, but has room for medical expansion,” said Jeremy Unruh, senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs for PharmaCann, an MSO with three dispensaries and a Tier I cultivation facility in Ohio. “For me that makes it more likely for a movement to have the most success if it’s under the rubric of medical expansion versus adult-use.”
While Gov. DeWine’s 2022 reelection bid is well funded and he seems to be well ahead of any opponents, many state legislators lack that security, points out lobbyist and cannabis activist Ally Reeves.
“Legislators need to make a decision. This is an election year, they need to make a decision before November,” said Reeves who is trying to capitalize on growing cannabis industry interest by hosting a four Ohio city cannabis career fair on Feb. 16. “If they allow it to go to ballot the people in Ohio will pass it.”
And if legislators oppose adult-use, but it passes as a ballot initiative, that could create political trouble for legislators in tight races, said Reeves.
But cannabis company operators, like Bill Williams, owner of independent processor Beneleaves, brush aside whatever might happen in the legislature, because the issue seems likely to head to a ballot vote in November anyway.
“I’ll take whichever one can get over that finish line. Any victory is a victory for all of us. I just love the fact that we have all this conversation,” said Williams. “The fact [Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol] were able to turn it around that fast and get those signatures, I think that’s a sign they are dead serious about getting what’s needed. They seem like they have the ability to move the needle.”