The game’s afoot in Ohio, once again. Over the coming days, Buckeyes are going to see a variety of news stories about a new campaign to legalize medicinal marijuana in our Great River state.

But Ohio Republicans might scuttle any attempt to get such an initiative in front of voters in November because it’s a U.S. Presidential Election year and they wouldn’t want such a ballot proposal driving undesirable demographics to the polls.

Here’s what’s going on:

Today, representatives from the national Marijuana Policy Project held a conference call with reporters from around the state about their initiative via Ohioans for Medical Marijuana to put the issue to voters on the November ballot.

The group plans to submit its initiative with the initial 1,000 signatures to the Ohio Attorney General’s office later this week. Once that is approved, a signature drive is planned from April to June, with the goal of submitting at least 305,591 valid signatures (approximately 550,000 gross signatures) to the Ohio government during the first week of July.

From the Ohioans for Medical Marijuana website:

In 2015, an organization called Responsible Ohio attempted to pass a constitutional amendment that would have regulated marijuana for adult use and medical use. MPP neither supported nor opposed that initiative, which was ultimately defeated by a 36 percent to 64 percent margin.

The 2016 campaign is focusing only on medical marijuana, which enjoys exceptionally strong support among Ohio voters. If approved on November 1, this initiative would legalize medical marijuana in a manner that’s similar to the laws in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

Specifically, the Ohio initiative would allow patients with serious medical conditions to purchase medical marijuana from retail outlets — and/or grow their own medical marijuana at home — if they have the approval of their physicians.

In the furtherance of this, the Ohio government would issue licenses for businesses to grow, process, test, and sell marijuana to patients with state-issued identification cards. If no other states enact medical marijuana laws via their legislatures this spring, Ohio would become the 24th medical marijuana state in the country.

From the conference call this morning, I’ve learned several further important facts about the proposal. First, the initiative seeks to allow 15 “Type 1” licenses for large-scale grow operations. If the initiative is passed by voters, commercial interests would be able to apply to become one of those 15 licensed large-scale producers. Beyond that, the initiative would allow an unlimited number of “Type 2” mid-level growth licenses.

Individual communities would be allowed to approach the voters of their political subdivisions if they wish to disallow marijuana grow operations or retail outlets in their communities, pending approval by the voters themselves.

The MPP has had a hand in many of the other medical marijuana legalization initiatives that have so far passed in 23 other states and the proposal for Ohio is very similar to what exists on the books in those other states.

If passed, those with a qualifying medical condition would be able to obtain a state-issued medical marijuana use license that would allow the purchase of medical marijuana, the growth of up to six personal plants, and protect the individual against arrest or prosecution.

According to MPP spokesperson Mason Tvert, “The registry will remain private and will only be accessible to law enforcement or medical marijuana establishments if they need to confirm the validity of a patient’s ID card or if there is some sort of extenuating circumstance (e.g. if some sort of criminal conduct is suspected).

“Patients’ privacy will be further protected by the issuance of an ID number to each cardholder. In other words, a police officer couldn’t look up someone’s name to find out if they are a licensed patient. They would need to look up the ID number on the patient’s card to see if it is valid and matches the name in the registry.”

During the conference call, MPP Executive Director Rob Kampia pointed to a recent Public Police Polling survey of 672 randomly selected Ohio voters, conducted Feb. 17-18, finding 74 percent of voters in favor of legalized medicinal marijuana and 22 percent opposed with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percent.

Asked if the initiative would pass in November, Kampia said that with voters approving at 74 percent in general, similar numbers in other states have only decreased to the mid-60s when voters are presented with a specific proposal. That being the case, he said, a medical marijuana ballot initiative would be likely to pass in Ohio come November, especially in a Presidential election year with higher voter turnout and a higher turnout among younger voters.

But here’s the rub.

When Ohioans rejected the ResponsibleOhio proposal in November 2015, they also passed Issue 2, which rewrote the rules of the Ohio Ballot Board to create extra, onerous requirements for any proposal that ostensibly seeks to establish “a monopoly” but according to the letter of the approved initiative, any “commercial interest.”

Republicans control the Ohio General Assembly, the Secretary of State’s Office and the Attorney General’s office, thus, they control the Ohio Ballot Board.

The MPP folks insist their proposal is no monopoly, with 15 licensed large-scale growers and unlimited medium-scale growers, how could it be? But is it a commercial interest? I think we can count on Republicans to argue that you bet your sweet bippy it is.

Furthermore, after the petitions are submitted July 1, the Ohio Ballot Board’s next meeting is in August, leaving them time to reject the proposal without leaving time for MPP to make the appropriate alterations and adjustments to get it on the ballot for November. Could the matter go to the Ohio Supreme Court, which would have the power to make sure it gets on the ballot regardless? Sure. But do you think our conservative-leaning Ohio Supreme Court would do that? Let’s not kid ourselves.

Republicans do not want a legalization effort on the ballot in November. It would do nothing but drive voters who lean Democratic to the polls.

They’ve got other options, of course. They could pass a medical marijuana bill legislatively, rendering the question of the ballot initiative moot. But what would a medical marijuana law passed by a Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly look like?

Well, the Ohio House Task Force on Medical Marijuana is underway, and will likely begin taking testimony in the coming months. It’s unclear what it might produce, but state Rep. Wes Retherford, R-Hamilton, of Ohio’s 51st House district, gave us a clue in early January.

Retherford has reintroduced a proposal he had last year that would legalize cannabis-derived medications to treat seizure disorders specifically. Retherford’s House Bill 33 is in the model of many southern states’ “High CBD, Low THC” legislation that allows the use of the positive effects of cannabis without the high that THC gives.

Through such legislation, politicians can argue that they did something; they allowed cannabinol-based medical treatment, but they have not allowed the high from using THC to be legalized in any way. They’ve “solved” the problem, they’d say, though in practical reality, to anyone who really cares about legalization, they’ve solved nothing.

In the south we’ve seen this play out to the point where we know that even when the bills pass, giving Republicans political cover so they’re not insensitive to the needs of children with seizure disorders, years later nothing has really changed with marijuana policy in the given states. Years later, the programs are not up and running.

Meanwhile, over in the Ohio Senate, state Sens. Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heighst (District 25), and Dave Burke, R-Marysville (District 26), are holding town halls around Ohio gathering input and preparing to take testimony.

At this point, it’s all still fairly early and tough to tell how this shakes out, but the game is indeed afoot, and Ohioans can expect plenty of political gamesmanship moving forward.

D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.

 

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