Ohio, one of the ultimate swing states in presidential politics, is also a long-time battlefield for cannabis legislation. Consider just a few of its highlights. First, having initiated alcohol prohibition six months ahead of the 18th Amendment, Ohio made cannabis a controlled substance eight years later in 1927 with the 87th General Assembly. Three years after Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis, Ohio followed suit in 1976, but prohibition intensified again in the 1980s and 1990s with several new laws, including one in 1997 that eliminated the “medical purposes” affirmative defense for possession. In 2003, Ohio representative Dennis Kucinich became the first presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter to call for the legalization of cannabis, declaring that "most marijuana users do so responsibly, in a safe, recreational context.” The war escalated again in 2015, however, with a little group called ResponsibleOhio.
Few legalization efforts in history divided reformers like ResponsibleOhio, which sought to make Ohio the first state to legalize medical and recreational cannabis simultaneously. Political consultant Ian James assembled an ad-hoc group of investors to fund the legalization initiative Issue 3 for the November 2015 ballot. However, the law provided investors with a 10-farm oligopoly that the prospectus reportedly characterized as ownership of a wholesale market potentially worth more than a billion dollars.
Some resentfully supported Issue 3 for the criminal justice aspect, but others condemned it as seemingly driven by greed. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who opposed legalization, fought the initiative every step of the way with dirty moves, such as disqualifying most of the signatures submitted to get Issue 3 on the ballot and then hiring a special investigator to go after the group. He then messed with the ballot language, which the Ohio Supreme Court forced the Ohio Ballot Board to change. Andy Douglas, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice, characterized the Secretary of State’s actions as an attempt “to silence us and chill any future opposition.”
Moreover, 43 Republicans and one Democrat in the state legislature hastily wrote and filed Issue 2 for the same ballot. If it passed, Issue 2 would ban constitutional amendments that enshrine a business interest or financial advantage, which would arguably cancel out Issue 3 and create hurdles for future citizen initiatives giving “tremendous power” (per The Cincinnati Enquirer editorial board) to the state government. What seemed like a blatant attempt to thwart democracy should have given ResponsibleOhio some sympathy, but then they roll out a cape-wearing cannabis mascot named Buddie that immediately (and rightfully) drew comparisons to Joe Camel, the cartoon mascot that helped R.J. Reynolds sell cigarettes to teenagers.
NORML ultimately supported Issue 3, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the organization. In support of Issue 3, he stated, "Using the cover of badly needed criminal justice reform, the investors, operating under the name of ResponsibleOhio, are seeking what is clearly an unfair advantage in the 'green rush' that is certain to follow marijuana legalization when it is adopted in Ohio. For these individuals, who have not previously been involved in the legalization movement, this exercise is only incidentally about ending prohibition and stopping the arrest of marijuana smokers; it is really about getting rich in a newly legal industry. Big money has now entered the picture, and this will not be the last time we have to deal with the issue of greed."
A Quinnipiac University poll found that 84 percent of Ohio voters supported medical cannabis and 52 percent recreational, but the conditions of Issue 3 gave people pause. Going into the election, a University of Akron Buckeye Poll found that Ohio voters were evenly split with nearly 40 percent saying it was the most important measure on the ballot. What happened? Issue 3 lost by a landslide, nearly two-to-one against, a margin so surprising that many suspected foul play.
Following the defeat of Issue 3, the Columbus Free Press newspaper asked statistics expert Ron Baiman to calculate the likelihood of the ultimate outcome. Baiman, a professor at Benedictine University, concluded, “The results are not only impossible but unfathomable.” Using respected pre-election polls, Baiman said you could have 100 percent of the undecideds vote against Issue 3 and give the full margin of error to the opposition, and the outcome would still not produce this result. He put the odds of the final outcome at “one in a trillion.” For the sake of comparison, such a surprise outcome could occur just once in the combined races for every single U.S. Senate and House seat between now and the late 24th century.
In the wake of Issue 3, new groups sought to get medical cannabis on the November 2016 ballot, including Grassroots Ohio, Ohio Medical Cannabis Care and the Marijuana Policy Project-sponsored Ohioans for Medical Marijuana. Surprisingly, the state legislature beat them all to the punch with House Bill 523, which Governor John Kasich signed into law on June 8. Though far from perfect, the law allows seriously ill patients to purchase and use medical cannabis. The law, which takes effect on September 6, covers cancer, chronic pain, AIDS/HIV, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress and several other qualifying conditions. The state still prohibits smoked cannabis and home cultivation, and the program probably won’t be operational until 2018. The aforementioned advocacy groups are no longer collecting signatures, but do not be surprised if one or more refocuses on recreational cannabis efforts.
What does all this mean for cannabis enthusiasts who just want a joint? Ohio is a decriminalized state in which a possession charge for 100 grams or less will not land you jail, which is an impressive amount of bud compared to other states who often put the limit around 28.5 grams (e.g., California, Vermont, Nevada). Still, a misdemeanor might not constitute a criminal record, but it can cause collateral consequences that potentially prohibit individuals from certain jobs and licenses and negatively affect housing rights and loan access. Moreover, the state may have decriminalized cannabis, but cannabis prohibition is primarily enforced by the police using local laws passed by city councils. Penalties for cannabis possession can differ from the state and other cities—from stricter to more lenient—and the local law typically trumps the state law when it comes to possession.
What does this mean? First, make sure you know the local law when lighting up so you are not surprised by the potential consequences. Second, recognize that influencing your local laws is typically easier than changing state or federal laws, and Ohioans can make a difference in their hometowns through reasoned activism directed at city councils and mayors.