As early voting in Ohio kicked off this week, Republican state senators passed a resolution urging residents to reject an adult-use marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot. But if the cannabis reform measure passes, Senate President Matt Huffman (R) also warned that GOP lawmakers may seek to scuttle some of its core components.
If Ohio voters approve Issue 2, he said during a speech on the Senate floor this week, “this initiated statute is coming right back before this body.”
“We’re going to have a mental health crisis on our hands,” if legalization becomes law, Huffman cautioned. “We are going to pay for this for years and years and years, and it’s only going to get worse.”
Huffman later clarified to local reporters that he wouldn’t seek to repeal the legalization plan entirely if it’s approved by voters, saying that he would instead “advocate for reviewing it and repealing things or changing things that are in it.”
He specified that he’s concerned about some of the measure’s provisions, including one that would funnel put a portion of state tax revenue from legal marijuana toward financial assistance and technical support for people who apply for cannabis business licenses under the initiative’s social equity program.
In his speech to colleagues, however, the Senate president took aim squarely at legalization.
“If Issue 2 passes, there will be more teenagers in the state of Ohio committing suicide,” he warned. “And our reaction to that will not be, ‘Let’s make marijuana illegal,’ because by that time, more people will be making lots of money. It will be, ‘Maybe we should hire drug counselors, get into the schools, talk about kids not taking drugs.’ But by then it will be too late. It’ll be even more part of our culture. And no, I’m not a scientist, but I’m a person who can look at facts and listen to scientists and know that that’s true.”
“If it’s in your home, if people can purchase it for you, if adults can purchase it for you,” he added, “children are going to have this more often.”
Watch the Ohio Senate debate the marijuana resolution at around 1:54:00 into the video below:
It’s not the first time Huffman has derided the proposal. Last month he said the policy change is “really going to be devastating,” arguing that it will lead to increase cannabis consumption by people who were deterred by prohibition.
For all the concern about an explosion in youth cannabis use, however, there’s little evidence that such a surge has happened in other jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana. A study published last month by the American Medical Association, for example, examined trends after Canada legalized cannabis nationwide and found that young adults who used marijuana before the policy change “showed significant reductions in use and consequences” after legalization.
The study did find that consumption ticked up slightly among young adults who claimed not to have used marijuana prior to legalization, but that slight rise didn’t lead to a corresponding increase in cannabis-related consequences.
Federally funded research from the United States that was published in August, meanwhile, found that teen use of marijuana remained stable amid the legalization movement even as adult use of cannabis reached “historic highs.”
A separate National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year also found that state-level cannabis legalization is not associated with increased youth use. That study observed that “youth who spent more of their adolescence under legalization were no more or less likely to have used cannabis at age 15 years than adolescents who spent little or no time under legalization.”
Yet another federally funded study from Michigan State University that was published in the journal PLOS One last year found that “cannabis retail sales might be followed by the increased occurrence of cannabis onsets for older adults” in legal states, “but not for underage persons who cannot buy cannabis products in a retail outlet.”
Much of Huffman’s speech to fellow lawmakers echoed claims made in the Senate resolution opposing the ballot measure. The GOP resolution claims that legalization would lead to more emergency room visits for children, increased risk of young people developing psychosis, lower intelligence and learning ability, more car crashes, higher crime rates, a bigger illicit cannabis market and “great risks at the workplace to employers, other workers, customers, and others.”
Like Huffman, the resolution also criticizes the bill’s investment in equity efforts. “The commercial marijuana industry’s proposed law,” the resolution says, “would steer more than one-third of tax revenue back to the industry itself in the form of a so-called ‘social equity’ program.”
One of the resolution’s two lead sponsors, Sen. Mark Romanchuk (R), a doctor and former county coroner, has also attacked a provision in the bill that would spend a quarter of marijuana tax revenue on substance use disorder programs and responsible drug education.
“They must’ve been smoking dope when they wrote it,” Romanchuk said in a press release, referring to the initiative. “If I told you 25 percent of your family budget would be spent on addiction programs, you’d say, ‘What happened to my family?[‘] Yet the campaign for the cartels thinks thats exactly what 25 percent of the revenue should go to – Addiction programs.”
A representative for the group behind Issue 2, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, downplayed the GOP politicians’ opposition.
“We’re going to have an election here in about three and a half weeks where the voters are going to make their voices heard,” spokesperson Tom Haren told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “If we earn the support of the voters, I expect the legislature to respect the will of the voters.”
Following passage of the Senate resolution earlier this week, Haren said that Issue 2’s opponents “continue to resort to lies, hyperbole, and Reefer Madness talking points because they know they can’t tell Ohio voters the truth.”
“Issue 2 will benefit all of Ohio by ending the injustice of marijuana prohibition, providing access to medical marijuana to those Ohioans that still cannot participate in our medical program, and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue. All while driving the illicit market out of business,” he said.
Nearly three in five state voters said they support adult-use legalization in a poll commissioned by the campaign and published late last month. That’s consistent with the results of other recent independent surveys. What’s more, the survey found that most Republican voters in the state in fact support legalization.
A number of Ohio lawmakers said last month that they doubted the legislature would seek to repeal a voter-passed legalization law. “There are not a majority of legislators in both chambers that would be pro-repeal,” Rep. Ron Ferguson (R) told The Dispatch. “That’s definitely not the case. You would have no Democrats, and there are not enough Republicans to put them in the top.”
The Ohio Ballot Board approved summary language for the legalization measure in August. It says the ballot initiative would legalize and regulate “the cultivation, processing, sale, purchase, possession, home grow, and use of cannabis by adults at least twenty-one years of age.” And it gives an overview of the regulatory structure of the program, social equity provisions, state-level protections for financial institutions that work with the industry and more.
Here are the key provisions of the legalization ballot measure on the November 7 ballot:
- The initiative would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates.
- Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.
- A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).
- A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”
- The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.
- The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.
- Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.
- Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”
- With respect to social equity, some advocates are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, the measure does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.
Both sides of the campaign have been stepping up messaging and get-out-the-vote efforts as the election draws nearer. Last week the yes campaign sent cease and desist letters to TV stations airing what organizers called opposition advertisements “filled with lies.” And the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol put out a pro-Issue 2 election ad of its own.
Attorney General Dave Yost (R), meanwhile, published an analysis of the initiative that he said is meant to provide voters with “vital clarity and transparency” amid a campaign that has seen “inflamed and inaccurate” rhetoric.
Despite the GOP-led resolution, other Republicans officials in Ohio remain divided on the issue. Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said in August, for example, that he believes “it would be a real mistake for us to have recreational marijuana,” adding that he visited Colorado following its move to legalize in 2012 and saw what he described as an “unmitigated disaster.”
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), who was Colorado’s governor in 2012, said last year that while he was initially concerned that legalization would encourage more use by young people, he now believes those worries were unfounded.
“I think we’ve proven and demonstrated that there is no increase in experimentation among teenagers. There is no change in frequency of use, no change in driving while high,” Hickenlooper said. “All the things we most worried about didn’t come to pass.”
Unlike the top state Republican lawmakers, U.S. Rep Dave Joyce (R-OH), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said last month that he’ll be voting in favor of the initiative in November. And he encouraged “all Ohio voters to participate and make their voices heard on this important issue.”
If the initiative becomes law, it would bring the total number of states with adult-use legalization to 24.
Ohio voters rejected a 2015 measure, on a 64–36 vote, that would have amended the state’s constitution to legalize marijuana and give control of the market to a small group of producers. Organizers for the current campaign said they drew on lessons learned from that failure in crafting the current initiative.
Bipartisan Ohio lawmakers filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana in May, offering the legislature another opportunity to take the lead on the reform. But it has yet to advance, and now the stage is set for voters to make the choice.