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Changing attitudes towards marijuana, Ohio’s laws could force lawmakers to take action

Posted at 3:31 PM, Nov 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-09 18:53:21-05

CLEVELAND — The 2020 Election kept either major political party from claiming a landslide victory in the White House, Senate, or House of Representatives.

But voters in five states (New Jersey, Montana, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Arizona) passed marijuana initiatives. New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota, and Arizona voters all approved adult use recreational marijuana, potentially being one of the first signs of a Green Wave.

“Marijuana is a non-partisan issue, it’s not just bi-partisan at this point, it’s non-partisan.” said Frantz Ward Partner Tom Haren.

Haren represents medical marijuana companies that are part of the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program and was part of the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol effort to put adult-use laws for marijuana on the ballot in 2020.

He says marijuana’s success at the polls in 2020, especially in red states like Montana, Mississippi, and South Dakota, shows politicians in both major parties that public opinion supports more access to the drug.

“In Montana, they had a competitive Senate Race,” said Haren. “[Republican Steve Daines] won that Senate are and they legalized adult-use marijuana at the same time.”

Additionally, one of the most senior Senate Republicans, Senator John Thune, represents South Dakota, which just approved an adult-use initiative. Haren says it's hard for politicians like him to oppose further marijuana reform.

“Their voters, who they have to answer to, have now told them that they support these reform issues,” said Haren.

Ohio’s ballot adult-use initiative fell short of getting its issue on the November ballot, partially due to the coronavirus, and experts say there isn’t much political appetite in Ohio’s Statehouse to create a recreational use program in the Buckeye State.

Haren says those lawmakers may not have a choice because of how Ohio’s laws are written.

“We don’t have a prohibition in Ohio on possessing marijuana,” said Haren. “We have a prohibition on possessing a controlled substance.”

As more states relax marijuana laws, Haren says the federal government gets closer to rescheduling marijuana, no longer considering it a Schedule I drug. Schedule I is the most serious classification and includes heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.

If marijuana gets de-scheduled under federal law and is no longer considered a controlled substance, Ohio’s law is written to automatically make that same change.

“Our statues that prohibit the possession or sale of controlled substances would no longer apply to marijuana because marijuana would no longer be a controlled substance,” said Haren. “Then we end up with this wild situation where we would have a very regulated and tightly controlled medical marijuana program but a totally unregulated, effectively-recreational marijuana program.”

Ohio lawmakers would likely take some kind of action before any legal consequences against marijuana possession or sales is nullified.

They have two options: creating an adult-use marijuana program in Ohio or changing Ohio law to specifically prohibit marijuana.

Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.

An adult use, recreational program would create regulations for who is allowed to cultivate marijuana, how much citizens are allowed to possess, and who is allowed to sell it. That kind of program would be necessary to make sure marijuana isn’t being sold to children.

Haren says marijuana’s electoral success means politicians are less likely to prohibit marijuana completely.

“Marijuana polls just as well if not better than any candidate on a ballot,” said Haren. “The marijuana reform advocacy community has never been in such a strong position.”

Patient Impact

Ohio’s Medical Marijuana Control Program has helped Sally Widmer treat chronic pain and PTSD in the year that she’s been visiting dispensaries and purchasing medical marijuana products.

Still, she says sometimes her preferred products aren’t available and her family sometimes has to help her pay because prices can be steep.

“If I were not getting the help from family to purchase this, I could not get anywhere near what I need to get,” said Widmer.

If Ohio were to create a recreational marijuana program eventually, the program might be able to increase the supply of products for patients like Widmer and potentially bring the prices down.

“I think it’s wonderful that these state are opening up,” said Widmer. “It needs to be opened up.”

Marijuana reform glossary

The legal terms around marijuana reform can be confusing.

  • Decriminalize — marijuana remains illegal but criminal penalties are gone. Sometimes misdemeanor charges and fines are still possible. Marijuana odor can still be a reason for an officer to conduct a search.
  • De-scheduling — marijuana is no longer considered a controlled substance
  • Re-scheduling — marijuana moved to different classification
  • Legalization — a state creates a framework to regulate growing, selling, and possessing marijuana
  • Prohibition — marijuana is completely illegal often with criminal penalties

Marijuana Legislation

Haren says there are two main bills working through Congress that would address marijuana reform.

The Marijuana Justice Act of 2019 would remove “marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminates criminal penalties for an individual who imports, exports, manufactures, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute marijuana,” according to the legislative summary.

It would also reduce federal funding for states that don’t legalize marijuana, expunge convictions for marijuana use or possession, and create a Community Reinvestment Fund to support communities most affected by the war on drugs.

The STATES Act (Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act) takes a slightly different approach.

“This bill eliminates regulatory controls and administrative, civil, and criminal penalties under the Controlled Substances Act for certain marijuana-related activities that comply with state or tribal law,” according to the legislative summary.

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