Ohio’s top alcohol regulator who previously worked as a prosecutor will head up the state’s newly established marijuana division that’s being established under the legalization law voters approved last month. And he says his joint experience working with the retail industry and in law enforcement “will be central” to his cannabis efforts.
Department of Commerce (DOC) Director Sherry Maxfield announced on Thursday that James Canepa has been selected to serve as the first superintendent of the Division of Cannabis Control (DCC). This comes as lawmakers continue to consider ways to amend the newly enacted law.
Canepa has worked as the department’s superintendent of the Division of Liquor Control for the past six years, overseeing the state’s alcohol industry and working with stakeholders on issues like inventory tracking.
Prior to his regulatory work, the new marijuana superintendent has also served as a top official with the Ohio attorney general’s office, chief counsel to the Ohio Department of Public Safety, an deputy inspector general for the state and Franklin County appellate prosecutor.
— Ohio Commerce (@OhioCommerce) December 14, 2023
Canepa has also spent the last few weeks advising the state’s Medical Marijuana Control Program on “rulemaking options” related to the state’s adult-use market that’s being implemented under Issue 2, DOC said.
“Jim’s proven leadership and innovative approach make him the perfect choice to navigate this new area of retail and regulatory responsibility,” the DOC director said in a press release. “His diverse experience and impressive regulatory credentials will be instrumental in developing a non-medical cannabis program that aligns with the expectations of Ohioans.”
Canepa, for his part, said that he is “humbled by the opportunity to implement a first-of-its-kind program for the state in a safe, responsible and efficient way.”
“I’ve been fortunate to spend years working within both law enforcement and the retail industry,” he said. “Both experiences will be central to the work that has already begun in this area inside the Department of Commerce.”
While his experience in alcohol regulations may well transfer to the cannabis industry, Canepa’s extensive background in law enforcement is likely to raise some eyebrows among advocates, who have strongly pushed for the divorce of the now-legal marijuana market from police.
For example, as GOP Ohio lawmakers push for amendments to the state’s legalization law that took effect at the beginning of the month, activists have sharply criticized proposals to redirect revenue to various law enforcement funds, arguing that it departs from the will of voters who passed an initiated statute that prioritized revenue for promoting social equity, for example.
In any case, while the Senate passed one legislative package to change the law last week, it did not receive concurrence in the House before lawmakers headed home for the year, keeping the voter-approved rules intact until at least early 2024. A House committee held three hearings on a separate amendment measure over the past week, but members have not acted on it.
Under Issue 2, DOC is given the authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”
The department—which published an FAQ guide for residents to learn about the new law and timeline for implementation shortly after last month’s vote—also announced on Thursday that Greg McIlvaine, the current policy director of the state’s existing medical cannabis program, will assume a leadership role in the new marijuana control division.
Meanwhile, top Republicans, including Gov. Mike DeWine (R), have insisted that voters were only supportive of the fundamental principle of legalizing marijuana without necessarily backing specific policies around issues such as tax revenue, which they’ve said justifies their efforts to amend the law.
While some Democratic lawmakers have indicated that they may be amenable to certain revisions, such as putting certain cannabis tax revenue toward K-12 education, other supporters of the voter-passed legalization initiative are firmly against letting legislators undermine the will of the majority that approved it.
Ohio Rep. Juanita Brent (D) recently emphasized that people who’ve been criminalized over marijuana, as well as those with industry experience, should be involved in any efforts to amend the state’s voter-approved legalization law, arguing that it shouldn’t be left up to “anti-cannabis” legislators alone to revise the statute.
Meanwhile, Rep. Gary Click (R) filed legislation earlier this month that would allow individual municipalities to locally ban the use and home cultivation of cannabis in their jurisdictions and also revise how state marijuana tax revenue would be distributed by, for example, reducing funds allocated to social equity and jobs programs and instead steering them toward law enforcement training.
Rep. Cindy Abrams (R) also introduced a bill last month that would revise the marijuana law by putting $40 million in cannabis tax dollars toward law enforcement training annually.
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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. The Senate president affirmed repeal wasn’t part of the agenda, at least not in the next year.
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 in late October, 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 in late October 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 recently 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.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told Marijuana Moment that “the vote in Ohio was a great big exclamation point on the things we’ve been talking about.”
“We’ve been saying for years how this issue has crested, how it’s got broad momentum, how it is inclusive. It’s sort of like the success with the [Ohio abortion rights] issue—except this was more pronounced,” he said. “We got more votes than the abortion issue. We get more votes than anybody on the ballot.”
The White House has 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 or whether he backs further reform of federal cannabis laws.
Meanwhile, as Ohio voters approved statewide legalization, activists also chalked up a series of little-noticed wins to decriminalize larger amounts of cannabis in three Ohio cities, according to preliminary county election results.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
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