Ohio lawmakers held a brief hearing on Tuesday to consider two marijuana legalization bills—one sponsored by Democrats and the other led by Republicans.
Both bills before the House Finance Committee would tax and regulate cannabis for adults over the age of 21, though they have significant differences between them.
Neither proposal is expected to pass this session, but the hearing provided an opportunity to hear debate on cannabis reforms that some lawmakers framed as inevitable as activists gear up to potentially place a legalization measure on the November 2023 ballot.
Rep. Casey Weinstein (D), one of the sponsors of HB 382, spoke first. Noting lost revenue to neighboring states that have already legalized cannabis, such as Michigan, Weinstein argued that his bill presents an opportunity for “investing critical dollars directly into our communities,” with funding for infrastructure and K-12 education, as well as general funding for counties and municipalities that host retail locations.
Beat Michigan. Legalize weed in Ohio! https://t.co/Qk4SIve2UV
— Rep. Casey Weinstein (@RepWeinstein) December 6, 2022
“For the first two years of the program, $20 million of marijuana tax revenues would also be earmarked for clinical trials into marijuana’s efficacy for treating veterans’ medical conditions and preventing veteran suicide,” Weinstein said.
He also discussed his legislation’s potential to create jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities in Ohio, including through the expungement of some cannabis criminal records in the state, which create significant barriers to employment.
“Arrests for marijuana possession have decreased dramatically in the last few years, but thousands of Ohioans are still arrested annually,” Weinstein testified. “This legislation will expunge records for non-violent offenders, allowing greater workplace participation in a shrinking labor force.”
Refuting claims that cannabis legalization spurs violent crime, addiction, and other harms, he countered that marijuana actually has the potential to help people struggling with opioid addiction. “The de-stigmatization—as well as critical funding dollars—that comes with legalization will only serve to advance this research,” he said.
Weinstein also emphasized that legalizing recreational cannabis in Ohio with HB 382 would not change the state’s medical marijuana program, but instead “allow more Ohioans to take advantage of cannabis’s medicinal properties.”
“The medical program is helping thousands of people, but for many, it’s too expensive and often inaccessible. Of the 140,000 patients approved for medical marijuana, 18 percent have never taken advantage of the program due to either physical lack of access to dispensaries near their homes or unaffordable pricing,” he said. “Legal home cultivation will allow Ohioans who need this medicine to grow it themselves.”
It is time to legalize marijuana in Ohio. I hope the legislature moves my bill, but if not… Power to the people. pic.twitter.com/riisZL91xe
— Rep. Casey Weinstein (@RepWeinstein) December 6, 2022
“We’ve reached a point where a majority of states have medical programs, and nearly half have recreational programs. Action is being taken at the federal level and a citizen-initiated statute is most likely coming to the ballot in Ohio next November,” he concluded. “We have the opportunity to take legislative action now to craft a program that works for our entire state, rather than wait. Ohio is ready for this, and if we don’t act now, we will be left behind.”
In response to his testimony, Rep. Haraz Ghanbari (R) cited a report of an increase in citations for driving under the influence of marijuana in states that legalized marijuana. Weinstein responded that an increase in testing was partially to blame, adding that “people under the influence of alcohol are 18-times more likely to have an accident as a result of impairment, and people today, the reality is, they are using marijuana and some people will drive with it.”
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“What we’re talking about with this bill is providing 30 percent of the revenue to law enforcement to be able to enforce this better,” he said.
Rep. Terrence Upchurch (D), who also sponsors HB 382, did not speak during the hearing but submitted written testimony addressing the dangerous snowball effect marijuana criminalization has on Ohio communities.
“There are far too many people locked up because of minor marijuana convictions, especially Black men and this is something that has been studied,” Upchurch said. “Tthe vast majority of people who sweep through our criminal justice system are in fact not a ‘criminal’ if we were to define these crimes by how violent their actions were.”
“We know once a person has a record, their life gets much harder. It is harder to obtain jobs, no job means no money, no money means not being able to provide for your family and this can lead a person back down a path of nonviolent crime (petty theft, drug distribution, etc.),” Upchurch argued. “By allowing the expungement of certain marijuana convictions we give people a second chance at life.”
Citing President Joe Biden’s call on governors to issue cannabis clemency, he said that “our own President understands that marijuana is not a violent crime and it should not be a crime at all. HB 382 will put an end to the demonization of marijuana.”
The Democrats’ bill, Upchurch said, “will bring families back together, put money back into the State and allow for more productivity in the State of Ohio.”
Weinstein and Upchurch also filed a separate marijuana legalization bill that largely mirrors the text of the pending initiative that activists hope to qualify for the ballot, but that measure was not formally a subject of Tuesday’s hearing.
The committee did hear testimony on the Republican-led marijuana legalization proposal, HB 498, from sponsor Rep. Jamie Callender (R).
Callender said he believes his bill is very similar to that of the Democrats, and that there is bipartisan support for reform. One difference between the proposals, he noted, was in the allocation of marijuana tax revenues in communities.
“This bill simply creates a 10 percent sales tax for marijuana sales, and 50 percent of that revenue would go into general revenue fund, 25 percent would go into a mental health fund to help with addiction and recovery services and 25 percent would go into law enforcement,” he explained, adding that he expects the bulk of law enforcement funding would be used to update testing equipment to identify those operating a vehicle under the influence of marijuana.
“That technology is developing still. It’s not fully out there yet,” he said. “There’s some companies that have technology that’s out there, but it hasn’t been fully accepted, partially because of the federal restrictions on testing here in Ohio, and having clinical trials, other trials.”
The reason there are multiple marijuana legalization proposals before the state of Ohio, he said, is because the federal government appears to be making its own moves to reform marijuana laws. “It’s going to create a situation in the states where we’re going to need to deal with it.”
Callender went on to explain how, in Nashville and other cities in Tennessee, where there are no medical or recreational cannabis laws on the books, some of the counties “have passed policies where there is no enforcement very specifically by direction.”
“Law enforcement—the county sheriff or the local police—are forbidden from enforcing any marijuana laws,” he said “As a result, in the streets where tourists and families are going up and down Broadway, there are dozens of pushcarts selling marijuana. That marijuana is not regulated, licensed nor taxed. You don’t know where it comes from.”
“Regardless of some of the details about the tax policy about the distributions, we need to have some regulation so that we know what is included in these products being sold,” Callender argued.
Citing reports of unregulated cannabis in circulation in California, he said some of these products “have been laced with things that are incredibly dangerous for you.”
“The vape pen, to distill the product into something to go into a vape pen, there are all kinds of chemicals that can be used. About two years ago, there was a real outbreak of people having severe lung damage from having tainted cartridges here in Ohio,” he said, referring to the e-cigarette and vaping-associated lung injury (EVALI) epidemic in 2019.
A study of that outbreak published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that, in states where cannabis was legal for adults or where medical marijuana patients could legally grow their own cannabis, EVALI was significantly less prevalent.
“In my bill, and I believe the other bill as well, we put the growing and processing under the same process that our medical has now—highly regulated, highly and professionally tested, so that you know what the content is,” Callendar argued. “If you’re a purchaser or user, you know what you’re getting.”
Callendar expressed fear that “if we have a ballot initiative and it carries, it won’t have the same standards that our bills have to make sure that the product someone’s purchasing is safe for their use,” and went on to claim that there have been “some issues with fentanyl showing up in marijuana in other states, something that is of great concern. And again, I think these are reasons to get the state involved.”
Two bills to decriminalize and regulate marijuana for adult use got a hearing today, a year after they were intro’d. This issue has wide bipartisan support, but the bills will die at the end of the year. The GOP is pushing HJR 6 b/c they’re afraid the people will act if we don’t.
— Bride Rose Sweeney (@RepBrideSweeney) December 6, 2022
Rep. Ron Ferguson (R), who is cosponsoring the GOP legalization bill with Callender, said in written testimony that “public opinion on marijuana has changed dramatically.”
“The question of legalizing marijuana is no longer a matter of ‘if,’ but a matter of ‘when,’” he said. “For these reasons, my joint sponsor, Representative Callender, and I believe we must have conversations now regarding the very likely possibility of legalization in Ohio.”
Neither bill is expected to pass this year and lawmakers expressed plans to re-introduce their legislation in the upcoming 2023 session. Although disputes over signature submission deadlines meant that a legalization measure failed to get onto the 2022 ballot, advocates are on track to put the issue before voters in the 2023 election.
Meanwhile, state-level setbacks have not stopped some cannabis reforms from taking root within Ohio. Just this year, voters in five cities approved local marijuana decriminalization ballot initiatives.
Advocates in the state have been working to enact local cannabis reform over recent election cycles, with most efforts proving successful. While decriminalization didn’t qualify for every municipal ballot that advocates targeted for 2022, a half dozen got the chance to make a policy change.
Additionally, the Ohio Senate approved a large-scale criminal justice reform bill earlier this month that contains provisions to protect people from criminal records for arrests or convictions over simple possession of marijuana paraphernalia. The legislation also includes measures clearing a path for people to have convictions for cannabis possession and other offenses sealed and expunged. Misdemeanor cannabis paraphernalia possession cases would “not constitute a criminal record,” nor would they need to be disclosed “in response to any inquiries about the person’s criminal record.”
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.