COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — An Ohio advocacy group said the state’s top Republican officials are blocking its attempts to get marijuana on the ballot in November.
The Ohio Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol filed a lawsuit last week in Franklin County claiming that House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman are thwarting the initiated statute process and trying to delay its ballot initiative to legalize marijuana until 2023.
Under the initiative, the sale, possession and purchase of marijuana would be legal for Ohioans 21 and older. A 10% tax would be levied on cannabis products, generating about $400 million in annual revenue for Ohio.
Of the $400 million, about $144 million would go toward social equity and jobs programs in Ohio and about $125 million would be allocated to localities that have adult-use dispensaries, according to Tom Haren, a Cleveland attorney and spokesperson for the coalition.
“The vast majority of polling across the country makes it clear that prohibition is going to end, and it should end – it’s bad policy,” Haren told NBC4 in April. “Polling gets more and more favorable. If it’s on the ballot, it will pass.”
Republican leadership in Ohio is largely opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana, expending their energy instead towards reforming Ohio’s medical marijuana program.
While two Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill in April to legalize cannabis, a spokesperson for Speaker Cupp said the House leader doesn’t believe enough lawmakers will support the initiative.
The question at hand in the coalition’s lawsuit? Whether the initiated statute process in Ohio requires a group to submit a petition — and have it verified by the secretary of state’s office — before the start of a legislature’s session.
Under state law, petitioners must submit a ballot initiative to the secretary of state at least 10 days before the start of the legislative session.
Sights set on presenting the ballot question to voters in November, the coalition submitted its collected signatures on the initiative to Secretary of State Frank LaRose on Dec. 20, abiding by the 10-day requirement before the Ohio General Assembly’s Jan. 3 commencement.
LaRose’s office determined on Jan. 3, however, that the coalition did not have the 132,887 valid signatures to proceed. Additional signatures were delivered to LaRose 10 days later, and on Jan. 28, LaRose verified the initiative and delivered a copy to the General Assembly.
Lawmakers have four months to consider an initiated statute, meaning they have until May 28 to consider whether to enact the marijuana petition into law. If no action is taken by the deadline, the coalition can collect an additional 132,977 signatures to place the initiative on the ballot.
But the interpretation of state law by GOP legal counsel would throw a wrench in the coalition’s plans to present the petition before voters in November.
Emails included in the lawsuit indicate that legal counsel for Republican leadership argued that an initiated statute must not only be submitted before the legislature’s 2022 commencement, but it also needs to be verified by the Secretary of State in order for it to be considered.
Since LaRose verified the petition’s signatures on Jan. 28 — about three weeks after the start of the legislative session — the marijuana ballot initiative would be invalid in the eyes of GOP legal counsel, and the coalition would have to wait until 2023 to get the petition on the ballot.
The coalition, however, contended that LaRose’s delivery of the petition to lawmakers on Jan. 28 was valid, citing an exception to state law that provides 10 additional days for the collection of signatures when the first batch are deemed insufficient.
If a judge rules in the coalition’s favor, the group will have until late August to collect more signatures to force the initiative on the November ballot.
Huffman and Cupp’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.
“We’ll say what we have to say about this through our filings with the Court,” LaRose’s spokesperson Rob Nichols said.