It looks like marijuana legislation may finally get hashed out. The budding issue is reaching its peak. It’s been a joint effort by many Ohio legislators — but it could be reaching its end.
Puns aside, the long road to legalizing medical marijuana in Ohio has taken a few turns.
Ohio has introduced seven medical marijuana-related bills into the Ohio legislature since 1999, with each one failing to pass.
Despite failed attempts at passing legislation, a recent poll from Public Policy Polling showed that 74 percent of voters in Ohio support making medical marijuana legal for patients who have terminal or debilitating conditions. Conducted in February 2016, the poll’s results came in contrast to Ohio’s decision to strike down Issue 3 last November.
Had it passed, Issue 3 would have legalized the limited sale and use of marijuana for those over 21 with a license and those with a certified debilitating medical condition. It also would have allowed 10 facilities to have exclusive commercial rights to grow marijuana. The initiative was defeated, with 64 percent of voters against its passage.
Flash forward two months.
In January, Ohio legislators announced the creation of a bipartisan task force to address medical marijuana legislation. The task force was made up of 14 members ranging from the president of the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association to a co-founder of ResponsibleOhio, the group that sponsored Issue 3 just two months prior.
Flash forward three more months.
The task force has endured what task force chair and state Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, said was “one organizational meeting, six hearings, about 23 hours of testimony and 100 witnesses” in order to develop a piece of legislation for medical marijuana.
They’re pretty optimistic about the result.
“What you have in front of you, and what will be spoken about over the next couple of weeks, will be, I think, the best medical marijuana bill in the United States of America,” ResponsibleOhio co-founder and task force member Jimmy Gould said at a press conference revealing the legislation.
The bill the task force planned would allow licensed Ohio doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients. It would not allow marijuana to be homegrown, nor would it mandate that employers accommodate employees who have been recommended to use marijuana.
“Physicians who are certified by the Medical Marijuana Control Commission will have to report every 90 days on the type of patients they have recommended medical marijuana to, the types of conditions they are suffering, why they recommended MM instead of other traditional forms of medicine and what form of medical marijuana they recommend,” Schuring said.
Additionally, a nine-member commission would be appointed to facilitate the licensing, processing and dispensing of medical marijuana. The members of the commission would be appointed by the governor, House and Senate, and they would work under the Ohio Department of Health.
As written in the bill, the commission’s nine members should contain a practicing physician, a law enforcement member, an employer representative, a labor representative, a alcohol and drug treatment officer, a mental health treatment officer, apharmacist, a pro-medical marijuana supporter and a member of the general public.
Photo by Torben Hansen
But the proposed bill isn’t the only attempt at paving the path of medical marijuana legislation in Ohio. Two other proposed amendments could be making their way onto the ballots of Ohio voters this November.
Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization, has backed an amendment that would permit adults to grow, buy and use marijuana as long as a physician recommends the drug for a medical condition. Minors would be allowed to consume marijuana if they have written permission from a parent or guardian.
MPP has been working to improve marijuana legislation across the United States since its founding in 1995. It has kept tabs on the Buckeye state for a while, but 2016’s amendment marks the first real collaboration between the group and Ohio.
“I’m really pleased that they’ve come into the state to do this,” said Mary Jane Borden, president of the pro-medical marijuana Ohio Rights Group. “All else being equal, when you’ve gone through all of this and you so want this to be legal, we’ve got the best organization in the country coming into Ohio and they’re used to running these things. They know the game and they know how to get it done.”
The group is one of the largest marijuana policy organizations in the nation and has spearheaded recent efforts in Delaware and Illinois to reduce the penalties for marijuana possession.
MPP didn’t involve itself in Ohio until now due to the expensive nature of the process and the hostility against marijuana legislation that was felt in the legislature, MPP director of communications Mason Tvert said.
“It wasn’t a state where we were ever too heavily involved in the legislature because it didn’t really have a chance of getting very far,” Tvert said. “We were never really too involved with initiatives because of barriers involved in getting on the ballot. It makes it a very risky investment and also a big one.”
Tvert said the price of putting something on the ballot in Ohio equals the cost of passing laws in multiple other states.
“At this point, there’s so much support for a medical marijuana law and growing support among potential funders and activists,” Tvert said. “It really became a lot more of a realistic campaign.”
Graphic by Kat Tenbarge
The proposed amendment is being supported by the campaign Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, which is supported by MPP. Since its certification, the amendment now needs more than 300,000 signatures from Ohio voters before it can be submitted to the Ohio legislature.
If it is put on the ballot, Tvert is optimistic that it will not meet the same fate as Issue 3.
“Issue 3 was the wrong year,” Tvert said. “It was an off-year election in which voter turnout would typically be older and more conservative. It was not a good year to put a marijuana-related measure on the ballot.”
November 2015 saw Ohio voter turnout at 43 percent, a slight increase from 41 percent in 2014 and a substantial increase from 27 percent in 2013. Presidential election year 2012 garnered a turnout rate of 71 percent, the highest it has been since 2004.
The language in MPP’s amendment also gives it an edge on the ballot, as it differs from the wording of Issue 3.
“Of course, there’s the big factor of how the proposal was worded and the nature of the system that was proposed which was highly criticized,” Tvert said. “I think that ultimately voters rejected that form of a measure pretty soundly. We don’t know where it would have been had it been 2016 and well-worded.”
MPP’s amendment would allow only physician-recommended adults to grow, buy and use marijuana for debilitating medical conditions.
Issue 3’s scope was much wider, giving adults over 21 the opportunity to purchase a license from the Ohio Marijuana Control Commission that would then allow them to grow, buy and use up to eight ounces of marijuana. Non-license holders who were over 21 would have been allowed to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana.
As opposed to the proposed bill put forth by the task force, backers of MPP’s amendment believe it is a more accurate representation of what Ohioans want.
“Their plan places the decision-making on how the medical marijuana industry is set up in the hands of an unelected nine-member board of political appointees,” Columbus communications director for the amendment Aaron Marshall said. “Some of the decision making will be happening in back rooms out of public view. Our system is presented in clear language that all Ohioans can read and understand.”
But while MPP’s amendment may present a juxtaposition to the politically-appointed task force, it’s not the only medical marijuana amendment that is trying to get support.
Pro-medical marijuana group Grassroots Ohioans is currently in the process of putting an amendment on the ballot. After being rejected by the office of the Attorney General, the amendment received certification April 7.The bill would allow marijuana to be used for medical conditions, but it would not require that a person get a physician’s recommendation prior to using marijuana.
Both bills have received certification from the Ohio Attorney General, and they are both hoping to gain enough signatures to earn a spot on the November ballot.
With three potential pieces of legislation circulating around Ohio, Mary Jane Borden is confident that one of them will pass.
“It’s going to happen within the next three years,” Borden said. “But if the legislature doesn’t enact anything this year, it’s going to be back in 2017.”