An association representing Ohio’s 112 local health departments is opposing a marijuana legalization ballot measure set to go to voters in November, claiming the policy change would only contribute to drug-related problems in the state.
“Making marijuana more accessible through legal recreational use and retail sales hurts Ohio, creates serious new risks for children’s health and makes our workplaces and highways less safe,” the Ohio Association of Health Commissioners warned in a statement Tuesday. “With Ohio’s rates of opiate abuse and overdoses still among the highest in the country, we need to be helping Ohio find solutions to addiction, not facilitating it or the interests of an industry that profits from it.”
Ohio’s secretary of state’s office announced last week that advocates for the legalization measure turned in enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, which prompted statements of support—and opposition—from stakeholders across the state. The health commissioners join the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association and Adolescent Health Association, as well as law enforcement and some business groups, in advocating against the change.
Many of the new opposition group‘s claims treat as settled science issues that other say demand further investigation. For example, a recent federal research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that teen marijuana use has actually been in decline since legal retailers began opening. And a number of studies have associated cannabis use and legalization with reductions in the use of unregulated opioids, prescription drugs and other regulated substances.
Ohio currently ranks seventh among all U.S. states in terms of drug overdose death rates, after West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky, Delaware and New Mexico.
The campaign backing the measure, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday that it’s “confident that Ohioans, just like voters in the states that have come before us, will see through these tired, debunked talking points.”
“Ohio’s current system of prohibition does not work,” said campaign spokesman Tom Haren. “We know that there is an adult-use market in Ohio today. It is called the illicit market. It is completely unregulated, products are not tested and products are not taxed. Also, drug dealers in the illicit market are happy to sell to children without ever checking for ID. This is a reality that is bad for the health of Ohioans.”
In states that have legalized, Haren added, “We know that usage among minors and adolescents does not change. We know that regulation does not adversely affect the workforce, and we also know that it is a boon for state tax revenue.” The measure’s 10 percent proposed tax, for example, “will generate more than $100 million every year to fund substance abuse and addiction treatment.”
In fact the state could see between $257 million and more than $400 million annually in tax revenue through legalization, according to a recent analysis from Ohio State University researchers.
Voters, for their part, appear to be leaning in favor of legalization. A USA TODAY Network/Suffolk University poll published in July found that about 59 percent of Ohioans supported legalizing the possession and sale of cannabis for adults 21 and older. Just 35 percent were opposed.
Republicans officials in Ohio remain divided on the issue. Gov. Mike DeWine said last week 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 argued is an “unmitigated disaster.”
One of Ohio’s GOP congressional representatives, on the other hand, is in favor of the change. A spokesperson for Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told Marijuana Moment last week that the representative “is supportive of the measure and plans to vote yes.”
Here are the key provisions of the legalization ballot measure set to go to Ohio voters in November:
- The initiative would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, who could also possess 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.
If the measure is ultimately enacted, that would bring the total number of states with adult-use legalization on the books to 24. Ohio voters rejected an adult-use legalization ballot measure in 2015, in large part due to concerns about provisions that many believed would create an unfair monopoly in the market.
Meanwhile, bipartisan Ohio lawmakers filed a 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.