A campaign to put marijuana legalization on Ohio’s November ballot may be in jeopardy, with a new lawsuit shedding light on a potential legal dilemma that could prevent activists from collecting the additional batch of signatures they will need to put the measure before voters.
The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) on Friday filed a complaint for declaratory judgment in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, requesting a ruling on a potential challenge over the timing of the group’s initial signature submission to the state for the reform initiative.
Some background is necessary: to put the legalization measure on the ballot, advocates first needed to turn in a first batch of at least 132,887 signatures to the state to initiate a process whereby lawmakers would have four months to consider the proposal and decide whether to act on it. All signs indicate that the GOP-controlled legislature is not willing to do that in the coming days before that window closes.
Without legislative action after four months, the campaign would then need to submit another 132,887 valid signatures to place the issue on the ballot. They’ve been preparing for that push, even as certain lawmakers continue to push for reform in the legislature.
Here’s where the new legal challenge comes in. Activists have been made aware of certain conversations among legislative officials and the attorney general’s office about whether the state Constitution would permit ballot placement considering the timeline for the initial signature turn-in and certification by the secretary of state.
It’s a complicated situation, but the main legal argument that could threaten the initiative is that, after CTRMLA turned in signatures on December 20, they were deemed insufficient by the secretary of state’s office and activists were then forced to collect more to trigger the legislative review of the measure. They turned those additional petitions with the state on January 13, which is the source of the problem.
According to the state statute, a ballot petition must be turned in “not less than ten days prior to the commencement of any session of the general assembly.” The session started on January 19, potentially falling outside of that ten day window.
This was a point of conversation between key lawmakers and officials, especially around January when these deadlines came into play. House Speaker Bob Cupp (R), who is named as a defendant in the challenge, acknowledged at the time that his office was looking into the matter, and a staffer corresponded with the attorney general’s office about whether a given petition would need to be submitted and certified within ten days of the state of the session.
The speaker’s deputy chief legal counsel said her interpretation of the statute was that the initiative didn’t meet the requirements because it hadn’t been certified in time; staff with the attorney general later said that “[b]ased on a cursory review, I agree with your interpretation,” according to an email referenced in the declaratory judgment.
Advocates are seeking a judgement to clarify whether the petition needed to be filed and certified at least ten days before the session started. The hope from the campaign’s perspective is that the court will agree that they only needed to make the initial filing, regardless of the delayed timeline after the state deemed some signatures invalid and required them to collect more.
“We’re going to court to protect the rights of the over 200,000 Ohio citizens that signed our petition and called for the legislature to take action,” CTRMLA spokesman Tom Haren said in a press release on Friday.
“Ohioans on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly support the legalization of marijuana,” Haren, who is also seeking an expedited review of the case because of the urgency of a resolution, said. “We look forward to giving Ohioans the opportunity to decide the question of legalization for themselves on November 8, 2022.”
If the court doesn’t grant the declaratory judgment enabling activists to begin signature gathering next month for the 2022 ballot, the lawsuit also proposes an alternative resolution to have a declaration that the state is “required to retransmit the Proposed Law to the General Assembly on the commencement of the General Assembly’s 2023 legislative session.”
Presumably, that would enable the campaign to avoid needing to collect another first round of signatures to initiate the legislative proceedings for a 2023 ballot push.
As all of this is happening, a pair of Ohio Democratic lawmakers recently filed a bill to legalize marijuana that directly mirrors the proposed initiative that activists are pursuing.
Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D) are sponsoring the legislation, which is virtually identical to the CTRMLA citizen initiative. The lawmakers announced the plan on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20.
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Weinstein and Upchurch filed a separate legalization bill—the first in state history—last summer. But that measure has not advanced. Meanwhile, a GOP legislator who’s sponsoring a different bill to tax and regulate cannabis recently tempered expectations about the chances for legislative reform, signaling that the issue will likely have to be decided by voters.
Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to put the measure on the ballot.
Activists suspended a subsequent campaign to place a legalization measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A recent poll found that a slim majority of Ohio voters would support marijuana legalization at the ballot.
There are also local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.
After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now targeting several other jurisdictions across the state.
Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.
Read the legal filings from the Ohio marijuana campaign regarding the 2022 ballot initiative below:
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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.