[Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that 23 states have legalized recreational cannabis, with Minnesota becoming the 23rd state on May 30, 2023.]
‘We are falling behind’
Adult-use cannabis has been legalized in 23 states, the District of Columbia and Guam, and 38 states have approved cannabis for medical use, including Ohio.
“The time has come” to legalize it for recreation in Ohio, said state Rep. Casey Weinstein of Hudson, D-34th, who’s leading the statehouse effort for adult cannabis use along with a Lake County Republican.
“I think when you look at the state of the nation on this policy, we’ve reached a tipping point — or maybe even past a tipping point,” he told FOX 8 News. “The majority of Americans are on the cusp of living in decriminalized or legalized states. We have a robust medical marijuana program in Ohio that’s been going for several years and growing. This gives us an opportunity to look around the nation at states that have moved ahead and take best practices, avoid pitfalls — as we’ve done in this legislation.”
What’s in the bill?
Ohio House Bill 168, called the Ohio Adult Use Act, introduced May 8 by state Reps. Weinstein and Jamie Callender of Concord, R-57th, would allow Ohioans who are at least 21 years old to cultivate, purchase and possess cannabis.
If it becomes law, Ohioans would be able to have up to 50 grams of marijuana — a little more than 1 1/2 ounces — and no more than 8 grams of marijuana concentrate. They would also be allowed to keep up to six cannabis plants at home, no more than three of which can be mature, flowering plants.
It also would levy a 10% sales tax on cannabis products, with revenues funding K-12 education; communities that are home to dispensaries; efforts to combat chemical dependence and illegal drug trafficking; and Ohio’s general fund.
Ohio’s bill would also allow for expungement of past convictions for non-violent, low-level marijuana cultivation and possession offenses, easing the strain on law enforcement and the judicial system, said Weinstein. Only convictions for possessing up to 5 ounces of marijuana; or 15 grams of solid extract, or hashish; or up to 12 plants would qualify for expungement.
President Joe Biden in October pardoned all federal convictions for simple marijuana possession.
State lawmakers have tried before
Ohio’s new cannabis bill “splits the difference” between two bills put forth in the last general assembly, neither of which saw a vote. Weinstein’s House Bill 382 was introduced in August 2021. Callender’s House Bill 498 was introduced in December.
Sponsors testified to both bills on the same day in December before the House Finance Committee, but neither bill went any farther. But now there’s a new House speaker, as well as an advancing initiative that wants to ask voters to legalize recreational marijuana at the ballot box this November that could spark some action, Weinstein said.
“[Legalization is] incrementally moving forward every General Assembly,” he said. “I’m optimistic that we’ll get a robust hearing in the House, then we’ll see where it goes. I know there is broad bipartisan support for this across the state and among legislators.”
The new bill has since gathered 10 co-sponsors, all Democrats. It’s been referred to the House Finance Committee, but hasn’t had a hearing yet.
“The reality is many, many Ohioans smoke marijuana or use edibles, and I’d like to regulate it, I’d like to tax it and I’d like to sort of bring it out of the shadows in some ways and create a fully robust market here,” Weinstein said. “We are falling behind our neighboring states. It’s really time to step up. The time has come.”
The bill would expand the state’s Medical Marijuana Control Program to also regulate non-medical cannabis, renaming it the Division of Marijuana Control and placing it within the Department of Commerce.
“Through the expansion of Ohio’s successful Medical Marijuana program to all Ohioans, we will not only be building upon best practices from around the country but utilizing the lessons learned here in Ohio,” Callender is quoted in a news release. “With the nation increasingly heading towards the de-scheduling of cannabis products at the federal level, Ohio has an opportunity to get ahead of the curve in developing its cannabis industry.”
What about federal legalization?
Though adult use cannabis could become legal in Ohio, it will still be outlawed at the federal level until it’s de-scheduled under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.
President Biden in October also ordered a federal review of the drug’s classification under that law, which currently lumps marijuana in with heroin and LSD at the most restrictive Schedule I classification, for drugs that have no accepted medical use but a high potential for abuse.
There’s also bipartisan pro-marijuana legislation currently moving through Congress — for the second Congress in a row, Weinstein said.
Local U.S. Rep. Dave Joyce of Bainbridge Township, R-14th, in 2021 sponsored the first Republican-led effort to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. It was handed off to several committees, but also never saw a vote.
A new bill introduced in May by Joyce and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, D-8th, sets the stage for new federal guidelines ahead of an “inevitable” end to the United States’ 86-year prohibition on pot. Joyce is also working with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, D-14th, on a bill to help states expunge low-level marijuana offenses.
“Ultimately, we need both to come together for, really, clarity of the law from both the state and federal perspectives,” Weinstein said.
Joyce could not be reached for comment.
It’s not the only path to state legalization
[In the player above, watch previous FOX 8 News coverage on a 2023 ballot initiative to legalize recreational cannabis in Ohio.]
Ohio’s bill is separate from a ballot measure to legalize adult use cannabis that could be put to voters this fall.
The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is still collecting the more than 124,000 total signatures needed to put the issue on the November ballot.
The initiative was put on hiatus last year, but got back into gear in May, following a missed deadline for state legislators to adopt a proposed bill for recreational cannabis. But the state statute the coalition is looking to enact hasn’t changed since then, its spokesperson, Cleveland attorney Thomas Haren, told FOX 8 News.
It would let Ohioans 21 years and older possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of cannabis and up to 15 grams of cannabis extract — more than allowed under HB 168 — and keep up to six cannabis plants at home, or up to 12 if there is more than one user living there.
Though Weinstein said he hopes the ballot initiative passes or otherwise compels the Legislature to make a move on adult use cannabis, he thinks the legislative process is the better avenue to make it legal.
“The ability for citizens to weigh in — both for and against — it lets us do amendments and substitutions and really work more with a scalpel on the legislation,” he told FOX 8 News.
But statehouse leadership has long been cool on the issue of legalizing marijuana.
“We welcome every chance to engage on this topic and are grateful for the thoughtful consideration of Rep. Weinstein and Rep. Callender, for introducing their most recent bill,” said Haren. “Unfortunately, leadership gave their proposal almost as much time as they’ve given our proposal — which is to say, basically, no attention at all. That’s why we are moving forward to put legalization of marijuana for adults on the ballot this November.”
What do Ohioans think of legal weed?
The last time recreational cannabis was on the statewide ballot was in 2015, following an effort led by Responsible Ohio that would have created a monopoly on any budding Ohio market. Voters that year rejected it nearly 2-to-1.
Polling of more than 400 likely Republican voters and 300 likely Democrat voters conducted in Ohio by Emerson College and The Hill during last year’s primary season suggests Ohioans would approve legalization — albeit by a narrow margin.
Fifty percent of those polled said they supported it, while another 40% said they were opposed. Two-thirds of the Democratic voters polled supported it, along with half of the Independent voters. A little more than half of the Republican voters polled were against it, however.
Haren said he’s seen other polling that puts Ohioans’ support for recreational cannabis closer to 60%.
“We have every reason to believe that legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana for adults is popular in Ohio,” he told FOX 8 News. “We’re confident that when we get on the ballot and Ohioans actually have a chance to have their voices heard at the polls that we’re going to be successful.”
The coalition’s second batch of signatures must be submitted to the Secretary of State’s office by July 5. Then those signatures will be sent to counties for verification, a spokesperson said. Barring any failures, voters will get to decide whether to legalize in the November general election.