Ohio’s vote to legalize marijuana on Tuesday captured national headlines as it became the 24th state to end prohibition. But at the local level, activists also chalked up a series of little-noticed wins to decriminalize larger amounts of cannabis in three Ohio cities.
Starting on December 7, adults 21 and older will be able to lawfully possess and cultivate marijuana throughout the state as regulators work to craft rules for licensing cannabis businesses. The governor, lieutenant governor and GOP leadership in the legislature are already eyeing changes to the voter-approved statewide initiative. In the meantime, residents of Harbor View, Risingsun and Sugar Grove have become the latest localities to remove criminal penalties for possessing more than double the amount of marijuana that’s permitted under the new state law.
Activists with the Sensible Movement Coalition (SMC) and NORML Appalachia of Ohio have helped pass local decriminalization in dozens of cities across Ohio over recent years. The groups haven’t decided whether they will continue to pursue further localized reform now that the state has enacted legalization, but they view their years of advocacy as complementary, familiarizing voters with cannabis policy in the build-up to Tuesday’s election.
“We are really proud to have locally decriminalized over 40 cities in Ohio leading to legalization,” Chad Thompson, executive director of SMC, told Marijuana Moment on Friday. “We feel over the past 10 years, this local effort has made a huge difference in the opinions and beliefs of cannabis and allowing the public to see that cannabis isn’t going to make the sky fall.”
“Over the last 10 years of active work, we knew this day was coming,” he said. “The real prize this November is seeing our country continue to march toward a complete and total revolution of all marijuana laws where we can all be a little bit more free as Americans.”
Ahead of the election, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) intervened to ensure that Harbor View would see decriminalization on the ballot after the Lucas County Board of Elections voted not to certify the activist-led cannabis measure in light of a local prosecutor’s concerns. After a review, he ordered the board to reverse its decision and qualify what is titled “The OG Wild Bill Marihuana Ordinance.”
That Harbor View marijuana measure narrowly passed by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. There were a total of 30 ballot cast for the local issue, meaning it was approved by a margin of two votes.
The Risingsun decriminalization ordinance passed 67 percent to 33 percent, according to the Wood County Board of Elections.
And Sugar Grove’s marijuana initiative was approved 52 percent to 48 percent.
The ordinances decriminalize possession of up to 200 grams of cannabis for personal use. That’s a higher possession limit than what’s permitted under the statewide legalization law, which will allow adults to have up to 2.5 ounces (about 70 grams) starting next month.
These are the latest reform victories in a decade-long push for local decriminalization. Last November, for example, voters five more cities approved local marijuana decriminalization ballot initiatives. And during a primary election in May, voters in Helena similarly enacted the reform.
With respect to the statewide legalization vote, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted (R) were among Republican leaders to oppose Issue 2. Both top state officials have since said they will respect the will of voters—but they’re also imploring the GOP-controlled legislature to amend the statutory law before legalization takes effect.
DeWine, who said he’s scheduled to meet with the Senate president and House speaker on Monday to discuss potential legislative changes, is specifically seeking revisions that would restrict advertising, mitigate the risk of impaired driving and limit public consumption.
Husted, for his part, said on Thursday that he understands why, “for various reasons, people want legal, regulated methods to buy” marijuana.
I accept the voters’ verdict that recreational marijuana is now legal in Ohio. I understand that, for various reasons, people want legal, regulated methods to buy it. For instance, an assurance that it’s not laced with fentanyl or associated with criminal activity.
— Jon Husted (@JonHusted) November 9, 2023
“However, I don’t believe that people want to be overwhelmed by smoke in public places like restaurants or parks,” he said. “I also don’t believe that they want it sold on every street corner or convenience store or excessive advertising that targets children.”
“We must also bear in mind that impaired driving jeopardizes all of our safety. Therefore, we have a responsibility to establish some policy guardrails to prevent this new experiment from getting out of hand,” he said. “Also, it’s essential to recognize that even though recreational marijuana is legal, many jobs will still require workers to pass a drug test.”
“The smart thing to do with the tax revenue generated by it should contribute to tax relief for working families,” he said. “Let’s make sure Ohio does this as responsibly as possible.”
Senate President Matt Huffman (R) and House Speaker Jason Stephens (R) have already discussed their own independent interest in amending the cannabis law, with a focus on THC limits and tax policy. A spokesperson for the Senate GOP majority similarly told The Statehouse News Bureau that the legislature “may consider amending that statute to clarify some questionable language regarding limits for THC,” and added that “tax rates are an issue.”
The governor acknowledged on Thursday that “what the people have clearly told us is they want legal marijuana in Ohio.”
“We are going to see that they have that, but we’ve also got to live up to our responsibility to all the people in the state of Ohio, whether they voted for it or voted against it…that we do this in a very responsible way, we do it in a respectful way,” he said. “And we do it, frankly, the Ohio way.”
For his part, Rep. Casey Weinstein (D), who has championed cannabis reform in the legislature and sponsored bipartisan legalization legislation, told Marijuana Moment that “Ohioans spoke loud and clear” at the ballot on Tuesday.
“We value privacy. We value freedom. We value liberty,” he said. “The leaders in the legislature should heed the call and uphold the will of the voters.”
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.
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 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 on Wednesday 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.”
The White House 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 this week or whether he backs further reform of federal cannabis laws.
Meanwhile, with Ohio enacting the reform, there’s also a renewed sense of urgency to follow suit in neighboring Pennsylvania, with the governor’s office calling it “another reminder” of the need to legalize cannabis.