The Columbus, Ohio skyline. Credit: GPA Photo Archive

Most states have a heavy that sets the trends. Usually there’s just one, but sometimes it’s two. Like for instance, everyone in Illinois complains about Chicago. In New York State, it’s New York City. Michigan, it’s Detroit. Missouri has two centers of gravity, St. Louis and Kansas City, but that’s pretty much it.

Ohio, well it doesn’t exactly have a heavy. You might say Cleveland and Cincinnati, but Columbus is the fastest growing metro area in the Midwest. And once you’re talking about Columbus, Dayton and Toledo get tossed in, and then Akron, and then the Ohio Valley…so exactly who is the big dog in Ohio?

That pretty much sums up many of the issues cannabis has in Ohio: There’s no clear big dog in the Buckeye State, so the issue has been batted around, with no clear leader or interest group taking charge. That’s not to say there hasn’t been forward progress, it just seems like more of an organic process than most states, so far as I can tell from talking to various leaders.

I’m getting ready to host a webinar next week on the state of cannabis in Ohio, so to prepare, this week I’ve talked to almost a dozen cannabis leaders and operators in the state. There’s a number of consistent themes I’ve been hearing.

  1. There’s no leading trade association for Ohio.

There’s plusses and minuses to this point for everyone, but the big minus is that there’s no central group to rally industry and patients on the issues. Sure, various constituent groups might disagree over the key issues, but at least there would be someone a governor and legislative leaders could call if they wanted to negotiate something. There’s a couple groups competing to be the leading trade association, but local leaders tell me there’s no clear man on the top.

  1. Cannabis legalization is considered a partisan issue, a no-no in a GOP-controlled state.

“It is still thought of as a partisan issue in the state,” said Pricilla Lovine Harris, lobbying director for NORML Appalachia of Ohio, who says that even though Republican native son and former Speaker of the U.S. House John Boehner is a vocal member of Acreage Holdings’ board, GOP members tend to shy away from legalization and decriminalization efforts. “You’d think that would impact things, but it doesn’t,” said Lovine Harris.

This has made it difficult to make updates to the medical marijuana law since it was passed in 2016, but downright impossible for legislative adult-use legalization. This session Democrats proposed adult-use and home grow legalization as well as decriminalization, but that seems to have been bottled up in committee by the Republican majority. There’s lots of talk about a draft bill from GOP State Rep. Jamie Callendar, but it hasn’t been introduced yet, and lobbyists I speak to say it’ll have trouble passing Ohio’s conservative State Senate, which Republicans control 25-8.

  1. There’s an adult-use referendum effort underway and Ohio’s process isn’t like most states.

Ohioans love ballot initiatives, and grassroots cannabis organizations have been putting that to work for them in lots of ways. One is an effort led by the advocacy group Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (RMLA) to push for a legislative initiative. A what?

In Ohio, citizens can collect signatures to require the state legislature to vote on a proposed bill. As my colleague Deborah Bayliss reported a couple weeks ago, RMLA needs to gather about 133,000 signatures to get their proposed law before the legislators. Then, if it fails, they get a second chance to gather signatures again to make it into a ballot initiative. What a cool system!

This also means state legislators are under pressure to get something done before a 2022 referendum, because, as Mary Jane Borden, president of patient advocate The Ohio Rights Group told me, “Legislators, hate more than anything [when] you’re trying to circumvent them.”

  1. Applications for 73 new medical dispensary licenses are due on November 18. 

Ohio has 57 medical dispensaries right now, with fifteen Level 1 cultivator licenses, authorized for up to 20,000 square feet of canopy, and twelve Level 2 cultivator licenses, authorized for up to 3,000 square feet of canopy. State regulators are accepting applications for new dispensaries, with a 2:00 p.m. deadline for next Thursday. There’s a five dispensary license limit for owners, but for many existing operators, this is the big chance to build out or become vertically integrated before adult-use gets legalized.

Advocates and local operators tell me there’s still an opportunity for social equity and ma-and-pa businesses to succeed in cannabis. Ohio actually has nine minority license holders, which is nine more than Illinois, and more than most other states. But Ohio doesn’t currently have social equity set-asides, like in Illinois or New York, so it’s still hard going for many minority applicants.

  1. There’s a lot of local action for decriminalization, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into state-level action.

Seven Ohio municipalities voted to eliminate fines and penalties for cannabis laws in local elections last week. That brings the total to 29 cities in the state, according to activist Chad Thompson, who has been leading the effort to rewrite local laws. But the local municipal actions are limited, since you can vote to eliminate misdemeanor laws, but only the state legislature can change felony laws. Similarly, getting the GOP-controlled legislature to support decriminalization – let alone automatic expungement – has been tough going, says Lovine Harris and other lobbyists. There may be more support for passing adult-use legislation than for decriminalization, I’m told.

  1. Social equity efforts haven’t been defined yet, let alone started.

“We got plenty of the jail time for cannabis and every state’s talking about social equity, but nobody’s figured it out,” said Bill Williams, an African-American and owner of independent processor Beneleaves. “The program was supposed to be by Ohioans for Ohioans. It’s quickly becoming a lot of companies coming out of Chicago.”

So far numerous groups have advocated for social equity, but there’s been no organized push for the cause, say advocates. For instance, drafts of the bill Rep. Callendar has distributed do not include social equity measures, say those who have seen them.

  1. Ohio has some serious bureaucratic oddities slowing down commerce.

When you go buy cannabis in an Ohio medical dispensary, you buy it in tenths – which tend to cost more than eighths just over the border in Michigan, locals complain. The tenths and eighths thing seems like a fun Ohio curiosity until you’re a multi-state operator and you’re trying to compare inventory between Ohio and another state. “What it does is screw up all of our accounting systems,” one MSO manager told me. 

And then there’s an 8 week wait for new cultivation and processing employees to get badges necessary to work on site. The Department of Commerce requires all employees to undergo an FBI background check before they can get their employee badge. The delay for employees, many of whom are hourly and give up their previous jobs while they wait to go to work, is turning into a crippling problem for growing cannabis companies who desperately need more employees.


Editor Mike is a co-founder and the editor of Grown In, a U.S. national cannabis industry newsletter and training company. His career has taken him from Capitol Hill to Chicago City Hall, from...