Recreational marijuana: What both sides are saying about Ohio’s Issue 2

Credit: Avery Kreemer

Credit: Avery Kreemer

This November, Ohio voters will decide whether to bypass the state legislature and legalize recreational marijuana for adults over 21, but the initiative’s wide disapproval among Republican lawmakers makes it unclear what Ohio’s finalized recreational marijuana policy might look like or how long it might last.

Nov. 7 will be the second time Ohioans have had the legalization question put before them. The first was in 2015, when 63.4% of voters shot down a highly criticized constitutional amendment proposal that would have legalized recreational marijuana and granted the ability to produce marijuana to a pre-select few growers around the state, creating a recreational marijuana market and limited competition in the same stroke.

The organization that got legalization on the ballot this November hopes that the 2015 vote has limited bearing on what might happen this time around.

“We couldn’t be more different from that campaign,” said Tom Haren, spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

Haren said that those differences include the fact that Issue 2 wouldn’t create that limited competition, the policy would be more flexible and that the tax revenue generated from recreational marijuana sales would be doled out differently.

If passed, Ohio would become the 24th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Haren said Ohio State University’s Drug Enforcement Policy Center estimated that the program will bring in about $400 million in new tax revenue to the state each year, which will be portioned out to funds that will regulate the industry, provide direct investment to local communities and bolster the state’s substance abuse and addiction funds.

Politically, the biggest distinction between the two efforts is that Issue 2 aims to change the Ohio Revised Code, and 2015′s Issue 3 aimed to amend the Ohio Constitution.

Like all state laws, the legislature can repeal or alter changes to the Ohio Revised Code as soon as they’re passed by Ohio voters.

In the state’s history, only three initiated statutes were given final approval by Ohio voters — Issue 2 aims to be the fourth. Across the spectrum, citizen activists trying to bypass the legislature to change Ohio law have told this news outlet that they tend to use initiated constitutional amendments because those amendments are protected from the legislature and require the approval of a majority of Ohio voters to be altered. In this case, Haren said the CRMLA chose an initiated statute specifically for that reason.

“We really felt like an initiated statute was the right structure for a market that is dynamic, young and evolving as the cannabis industry. We wanted to ensure that as the program develops that we have an opportunity to modify rules,” Haren said. “If something is not working, we can change it to ensure that we have a regulatory environment that evolves with the business environment.”

With this decision also comes the possibility that the Ohio legislature could immediately repeal Issue 2 if it were to pass with a simple majority of the vote this November — a route that Haren believes the Republican-dominated Ohio General Assembly wouldn’t take, despite Republican legislators’ overwhelming opposition to recreational marijuana.

Republican opposition

This news outlet interviewed seven local Republican state legislators representing the Miami Valley about their stance on Issue 2.

Each is opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana, saying they are concerned about the health aspects around marijuana; the physical dangers of more impaired drivers and what that might do to insurance rates; the belief that more available marijuana might negatively impact businesses, whether that be through inebriation-related incidents or a shrinking pool of applicants for drug-free workplaces; and the belief that legalized marijuana edibles, like chocolates or candies, will lead to more children accidentally ingesting THC., the primary compound in marijuana that makes people feel high.

Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, said his former time in law enforcement, including a decade as Montgomery County Sheriff, shapes much of his view on what recreational marijuana might do if it became legal.

“I just don’t think it turns people into being real productive citizens,” said Plummer, who believes marijuana can act as a gateway drug.

Plummer told this news outlet that he’d be inclined to respect the voters and keep recreational marijuana if it were to pass this November but noted that he’d like to see the legislature amend it, potentially to place caps on how much THC products can contain.

For others, like state Sen. George Lang, R-West Chester, the concern isn’t necessarily rooted in belief that marijuana is a gateway. Instead, his concern is that Issue 2 offers no legal protections for businesses if an employee has a workplace accident while high.

“If marijuana is going to be legalized recreationally, I would like for it to be written into the law that if you are stoned, and you come into work stoned, and you flip over a forklift for example, you, the individual, are responsible for all the damages that you caused and you are not eligible for any type of unemployment or workers comp benefits as a result of what may have happened,” Lang said.

Lang noted that, while he’s rooting for Issue 2 to fail, he’d work to get those specific business protections in place through the legislature.

Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, and Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, who are both medical professionals, said that their concerns surrounding Issue 2 are mostly health-based.

Gross laid out her belief that the cons, particularly based around mental health and childbirth, both of which she believes would be negatively impacted by wide-scale recreational use, would outweigh the pros in her cost-benefit analysis.

“To me, I’m trying to understand how recreational marijuana is a greater benefit than a detraction to Ohio,” Gross said.

She said she’d ultimately lean toward repealing Issue 2 altogether should it pass this November based on her concerns.

Despite similar concerns, Huffman expressed wariness about a full repeal.

“In my opinion, it would be very difficult for the General Assembly to overall repeal it because the people will have spoken, and we shouldn’t say we know best and remove it,” Huffman said. “There might be small things in a logistical (sense) that we may be able to improve as the General Assembly, but to overall repeal would be extremely difficult.”

Other respondents, including Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton; Sen. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg; and Warren County Sen. Steve Wilson, R-Maineville; all said they oppose Issue 2.

Republican leadership at the Statehouse has shied away from taking a stance on what the legislature might do if Issue 2 were to pass, but this week House Speaker Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, hinted to reporters that his caucus would likely take a look, saying, “They call it the revised code for a reason.”

Campaign pushback

For Haren, those concerns largely exist already and don’t necessarily take into consideration what is already happening in Ohio in regards to marijuana consumption. He argued that Ohio’s current policy, which is recreational prohibition alongside a medical program, has not prevented Ohioans from buying marijuana for recreational use.

“Prohibition has not stopped people from using marijuana, so do we want people to keep buying marijuana from sources that aren’t regulated, aren’t tested, that aren’t taxed — or do we want to regulate the market to ensure products are safe, so that they know where they’re coming from, that we can guarantee that it’s staying out of the hands of kids and that it’s generating new tax revenue?” Haren said.

Haren also said that a goal of the campaign is to keep marijuana away from children, which he said Issue 2 would do better than the state’s current approach.

“The best way to do that, we believe is through a regulated program where retailers have to be background checked, they have to be licensed by the state, where there are mandatory setbacks from schools and playgrounds and libraries, etcetera, and where you lose your license if you sell to somebody under 21,” Haren said. “Contrast that with the illicit market, where drug dealers don’t ask for IDs, they don’t test their producers to make sure they’re not contaminated, their methods of production aren’t regulated or overseen by anybody, and they sure as heck don’t pay any taxes.”

Democratic Support

Support for Issue 2 hasn’t been as cohesive among Democrats as opposition has been for Republicans.

The Democratic Party of Ohio, when asked for its position, told this news outlet that it has not yet met to discuss Issue 2 and might not be able to in time for the November election. Matt Keyes, spokesperson for the party, said all endorsements so far have come from the county level.

So far, the biggest local Democratic coalition is yet to announce. Montgomery County Democratic Party Chair Mohamed Al-Hamdani told this news outlet that he expects the board to take a stance soon.

“I think overall, our party is very supportive of it,” Al-Hamdani said. “Besides decriminalizing it, what (Issue 2) would do for a lot of our communities that we represent, is it also generates a lot of income that can go toward our schools and a bunch of other programs that the state is currently lacking funding for.”

In the Statehouse, Dayton’s sole Democratic legislator, Rep. Willis Blackshear, Jr., said he was unable to give a comment by the time of publication. House Minority Leader Allison Russo, on the other hand, recently told reporters that she supports Issue 2, but isn’t sure her caucus will take a stance on it either way.

Medical concerns

So far, children’s hospitals in Ohio have unanimously opposed recreational usage under the logic that easier access to recreational marijuana, including innocuous products attractive to kids, will increase the amount of children that are hospitalized or otherwise adversely impacted by marijuana.

When asked about its position, Dayton Children’s Hospital told the Dayton Daily News that it strongly opposes Issue 2 for those reasons. A release from the hospital said those products can be tremendously intoxicating for a child, and that other states have seen their child hospitalizations rise after legalization.

“Given the facts, this proposal is bad for our state, bad for our children and not aligned with Dayton Children’s mission of the relentless pursuit of optimal health for every child within our reach. We hope Ohioans will join us in protecting our kids and vote NO in November,” the release said.

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