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Republican Ohio Lawmakers Announce Marijuana Legalization Bill, Reflecting Recent Bipartisan Shift

For years, Democratic lawmakers have mostly led the charge in pushing for marijuana legalization—but that seems to be changing of late. The latest example comes from a pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers who announced a new bill to legalize cannabis on Tuesday, a move that comes as activists are collecting signatures to put a cannabis initiative on the state’s ballot next year.

While polling has shown that marijuana reform is increasingly a bipartisan issue with voters, that attitude hasn’t been largely reflected in state legislatures across the U.S., or in Congress. But this month alone, new legalization legislation is being championed by GOP lawmakers in Pennsylvania and now Ohio.

There have also been a handful of Republican-led pushes to enact cannabis policy changes earlier in 2021 sessions, everywhere from New Hampshire to Missouri, with GOP members either sponsoring their own legislation or joining Democrats on bipartisan reform bills.

On Tuesday, Ohio Rep. Jamie Callender (R) held a press conference to unveil his new proposal, which would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess marijuana. The bill, whose chief cosponsor is another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Ron Ferguson, would provide regulations for the licensing of cannabis growers, distributors and retailers.

Adults “should be able to make decisions for themselves, and that’s what this bill does,” Callendar said at Tuesday’s press conference.

“I just think it’s nonsensical that we treat alcohol and marijuana differently,” he said. “It’s about personal freedom, it’s about moving the state and the country forward. It’s about going where people are going anyway.”

Limited home cultivation would be allowed, and half of revenue resulting from a 10 percent tax on marijuana sales under the bill would go to the state’s general revenue fund with the other half being divided between law enforcement and mental health and addiction treatment and recovery services.

The state Department of Commerce would oversee the recreational marijuana program, and the legislation would allow existing medical cannabis businesses to enter the adult-use market while also creating a process to license new operators.

Callender said that although Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Mike DeWine (R) are not yet on board, “there is more bipartisan support than most people would think,” he said.

“Leadership in both chambers has expressed their skepticism—we’ll say in a polite way—but they’re giving us the chance to explain and advocate as to why this is the right policy [and] why it’s right to do it now before the federal government does it and it becomes a free for all.”

House Speaker Robert Cupp (R) laughed when he was asked about Callender’s legislation earlier on Tuesday, adding, “Let’s just see where it goes. I haven’t read it yet.”

Callender and Ferguson will circulate a cosponsorship memo to build support for the forthcoming legislation, as soon as Tuesday, and are aiming to formally file the bill within the next six weeks or so.

“The time is right to do this, and this is the right vehicle to do that,” Callender said. “This is the responsible way to legalize marijuana.”

The legislation also contains provisions to expunge prior cannabis records and remove restrictions on participation in the legal industry by people with past convictions.

Representatives of two current medical cannabis businesses spoke in support of the new legislative push at Tuesday’s press conference.

Callender and Ferguson said that one outstanding issue in negotiations to finalize the bill is whether it will institute licensing caps.

Advocates are encouraged to see GOP legislators finally embrace marijuana legalization, as building bipartisan buy-in could be key to getting a policy change enacted in historically conservative states where reform has stalled.

Pennsylvania is a good example of that. A Republican state senator and former federal law enforcement agent announced last week that he will be filing a bill to legalize marijuana in the state—and he’s asking his colleagues to join him in the effort. He’s the second GOP senator in the state to announce support for legalizing cannabis this year.

Separately, a GOP member of the Pennsylvania House filed a bill last week that’s meant to promote research into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms for mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

In both Ohio and Pennsylvania, marijuana reform has been a hard sell in Republican-controlled legislatures. But both Republicans and Democrats in those and other states seem to be recognizing not just the bipartisan popularity of legalization among their constituents but the economic potential a regulated cannabis market could represent.

In July, Democratic lawmakers in Ohio formally introduced a bill to legalize marijuana possession, production and sales—the first effort of its kind in the state legislature.

Activists have also recently been cleared to begin signature gathering for a 2022 ballot initiative to legalize cannabis. If supporters collect 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters, the legislature will then have four months to adopt the measure, reject it or adopt and amended version. If lawmakers do not pass the proposal, organizers will then need to collect an additional 132,887 signatures to place the proposal before voters on the ballot during next year’s midterm election.

Callendar said that he’s not necessarily opposed to enacting legalization through a ballot measure, but “there’s a strong argument that the legislature [should be] taking the initiative and doing it.”

Meanwhile, voters in more than a dozen Ohio municipalities will separately decide on ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana next month. At least one city police department seems less than enthused about the reform, posting and then deleting a press release that warned of a societal “downhill tumble” that could result from the modest reform.

Again, what makes these latest legislative pushes in Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere notable is the fact that they show a narrowing of the marijuana policy divide between Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Medical cannabis legalization is at this point fairly uncontroversial in state legislatures, but GOP members have frequently expressed opposition to going further than providing patients access with the plant by legalizing it for recreational use.

Whether the growing bipartisan sentiment around the issue will reach Congress this session is yet to be seen. Democrats are leading bills to end federal cannabis prohibition in both chambers, and they will need to garner at least some Republican voters to get either of the bills to President Joe Biden’s desk.

Biden, however, remains opposed to adult-use legalization while state GOP lawmakers are increasingly pursuing the reform. But he has voiced support for letting states set their own marijuana policies.

A slim majority of Republicans said in a 2020 poll that they back an earlier version of a legalization bill that passed the House.

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