Ohio Voters Pass Issue 2 Legalizing Recreational Marijuana Use

Ohio, where legislators authorized medical use of marijuana in 2016, went further on Tuesday, becoming the 24th state to legalize recreational use. According to projections by NBC News and The Hill, voters approved Issue 2, which allows adults 21 or older to publicly possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants at home. With 57 percent of ballots counted, 56 percent of voters had said yes to the ballot initiative, which also will create a system to license and regulate commercial sales.

That’s assuming Ohio legislators do not rewrite or override the rules established by Issue 2, which they have the power to do with any “initiated state statute,” as opposed to a constitutional amendment. Before Issue 2 was submitted to voters, the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly passed up a chance to enact it, and now the measure returns to the legislature, which can revise it before it takes effect.

“I definitely think that if it passes, there are problems in it that need to get addressed,”  Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman (R–Lima) said before the election. “I will advocate for reviewing things or repealing things or changing things that are in it.”

Which things? Huffman was not specific. But in a speech last month, he warned that marijuana legalization could precipitate a “mental health crisis” in Ohio. “When we see more drug use, when we see more teenage mental illness, more teenage suicide,” he said, “people may say, ‘We should bring this back a little bit.'”

Unsurprisingly, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the group that ran the Issue 2 campaign, thinks the measure should be implemented as is. “We think that Ohio voters have a right to expect that their elected officials follow election results and respect the will of the people,” coalition spokesman Tom Haren said in response to Huffman’s comments.

Issue 2 was backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the Green Party of Ohio, and two members of the state’s congressional delegation: Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) and Rep. David Joyce (R). Their argument was pretty straightforward: that marijuana should be treated like alcohol, which would replace the black market with a regulated industry, generate tax revenue, and “end unfairly harsh punishments for minor marijuana offenses.”

Opponents included a bunch of Republican legislators, several law enforcement groups, and Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, who worried about “increased use by underage kids”—a fear that has not materialized in other states that have legalized marijuana. Three Republican legislators employed starkly anti-capitalist rhetoric, complaining that Issue 2 “puts profits over people” by legalizing “an addiction-for-profit industry” that will “make a few greedy investors rich.”

Unless state legislators intervene, Issue 2 will establish a Division of Cannabis Control within the Commerce Department, which will be charged with licensing and regulating growers, manufacturers, testing laboratories, distributors, and retailers. Sales will be taxed at 10 percent, in addition to standard state and local sales taxes that average 7.24 percent. Local governments are not authorized to impose additional marijuana taxes, although they can claim a share of the revenue if they allow pot shops to operate within their borders.

The taxes in neighboring Michigan, where voters approved marijuana legalization in 2018, are similar: a 10 percent retail tax, plus a 6 percent standard sales tax. “We’re taking money away from drug dealers and Michigan dispensary owners and putting it back into the pockets of our local governments,” Haren said before the election.

Legalization of possession takes effect in Ohio on December 7. State regulators are supposed to start issuing commercial licenses within nine months.

“This isn’t groundbreaking,” Haren said after Issue 2 qualified for the ballot. “We’re just trying to get Ohio in line with neighbors like Michigan and Illinois.”

Once people can legally buy marijuana, where can they legally consume it? That question has presented a puzzle in other states that have legalized recreational use without allowing businesses analogous to bars or restaurants that serve alcohol. The problem is especially acute for out-of-state visitors, who are apt to find that their hotels frown upon marijuana use.

The Ohio initiative obliquely addresses that issue. It says marijuana use in “public areas” is a “minor misdemeanor,” punishable by a $150 fine. It explicitly does not permit marijuana use on “federal, state, or locally owned land.” It says landlords may not reject tenants based primarily on their cannabis consumption, although they would be allowed to prohibit pot smoking as long as that is a condition of the lease. Finally, the initiative says it does not “prohibit any public place from accommodating an individual’s use of [recreational] cannabis,” which seems to leave room for businesses where people can legally use marijuana.

“Cannabis legalization is an issue that unites Democrats, Republicans, and Independents,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said in a press release tonight. “Ohioans have seen similar legalization laws adopted in neighboring states and they know that regulating the cannabis market is preferable to the failed policy of prohibition. It is imperative that elected officials respect the voters’ decision and implement this measure in a manner that is consistent with the sentiments of the majority of the electorate.”