The Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Courthouse in Columbus, Ohio. Credit: Provided / DesignGroup Architects

Ohio cannabis advocates are turning to the courts in order to bring legalizing adult use cannabis to a vote this year. 

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA) filed a lawsuit on April 29 in Franklin County Court of Common Pleas against House Speaker Bob Cupp, Senate President Matt Huffman, and Secretary of State Frank LaRose, claiming that the elected officials are unjustly delaying a vote on the state’s adult use cannabis initiative until 2023. State lawmakers are claiming that CRMLA failed to file its ballot initiative before the 2022 legislative session began, making it ineligible to be taken up by the legislature.

Ohio’s statutory initiative law allows citizens to petition the legislature to take up proposed bills. If the legislature does not act on the legislative initiative within four months, the petitioners can go back to the public to collect additional signatures to put the initiative to a vote. 

[Download a copy of the complaint]

In late January, CRMLA submitted hundreds of thousands of signatures to Secretary of State Frank LaRose, setting the measure up for consideration by the legislature on Jan. 28, where GOP leaders in the House and Senate declined to take up the bill.

Weeks after the statutory initiative was submitted, Republican State Senate President Matt Huffman, discussing adult use, told the Columbus Dispatch, “I’m not going to bring it to the Senate floor. And if that means people want to go put it on the ballot, have at it.”

In its lawsuit, CRMLA is requesting the court to declare the “transmission of the proposed law was legally proper” so the four month petition clock can begin in late January 2022, when CRMLA submitted the petition. If the submission deadline is delayed much more than a month, CRMLA will likely not have enough time to collect enough signatures to get an initiative on the November 2022 ballot. 

All motions and briefings on the complaint should be submitted by June 5, according to a briefing schedule released by the Franklin County Court Judge Richard A. Frye. In a June 3 hearing, CRMLA told Judge Frye that signatures to get on the November 6 ballot are due no later than July 6, 125 days before election day.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol could not be reached for comment by publication.

In the statutory initiative submitted by the Coalition, adults ages 21 and older would be able to buy, possess, grow, and consume cannabis. It would also create adult use cultivation, processing, and dispensary licenses, allow home grow up to six plants per adult with a maximum of 12 plants per household and set a 10% sales tax at the point of sale.

Attorney Chad Thompson, who specializes in cannabis laws in the state, said that he was not shocked by the decision to sue, but doubts that it makes any substantial difference.

“I was not surprised to hear it, but whenever you try to change state laws, they’re a formidable force,” Thompson said. “The requirements of the ballot initiatives are purposely hard. The legislature is an 800 pound gorilla with the power to shadow kill a campaign.”

State lawmakers have proposed and debated their own adult use efforts as well, with SB261 currently waiting for a vote in the House after passing the Senate. The measure would let physicians include any condition from which a patient could benefit or experience relief from cannabis use. Researchers from Ohio State University say the state could see $375 million if recreational sales were legalized.

The Coalition’s bill and SB261 are also a hard sell to Republican state leaders, with Gov. Mike DeWine and Senate President Matt Huffman staunchly opposed to bringing recreational cannabis to Ohio. 

State GOP leaders could also be seeking to push the initiative to 2023 and off this November’s ballot to avoid drawing more liberal, Democratic voters to the ballot. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine is up for reelection this fall and there will be a slugging match over an open U.S. Senate seat.

Don Keeney, executive director of NORML Appalachia of Ohio, said that the ballot initiative is still worth fighting for, as well as inviting public participation.

“To me, this is the best form of direct democracy,” Keeney said. “Getting voters directly involved with an issue is powerful and can make a difference.”

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Trey Arline is Grown In’s Midwest Reporter. He was most recently with the Daily Herald, but has also reported for Vegas PBS, The Nevada Independent, and the Associated Press.