Ohio Cannabis Advocates File Lawsuit Against Lawmakers For Attempt to Block 2022 Initiative
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost
Ohio Attorney General; Adobe Stock

Ohio Cannabis Advocates File Lawsuit Against Lawmakers For Attempt to Block 2022 Initiative

State legislators are arguing that the group’s petition needed to be approved, not just submitted, ahead of a signature deadline.

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May 2, 2022

Ohio legislators who have refused to consider cannabis legalization in the General Assembly are now attempting to block a citizen-led initiative from putting a question to voters on the November 2022 ballot.

Legalization advocates who represent the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA) filed a lawsuit April 29 against Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, and Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, in an effort to keep their legalization petition measure on target for this year’s election.

The coalition’s proposed statute seeks to allow adults 21 and older to buy and possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis (or 15 grams of extract) and grow up to six plants per person or 12 plants per household. In addition, the proposal aims to impose a 10% tax on cannabis sales, with revenue going toward state costs to run a legalized program; substance abuse and addiction treatment programs; supporting municipalities with dispensaries; and social equity and jobs programs.

While Huffman told reporters in February that he won’t act on calendaring the coalition’s proposal for debate in the Senate, he also said, “And if that means people want to go put it on the ballot, have at it.”

But now the Senate president and Cupp are allegedly attempting to stop the people from having at it.

According to the lawsuit filed in the Franklin County Clerk of Courts, legal counsel for GOP leadership argued that the CRMLA petition was not approved in time to be considered for the 2022 ballot and now must wait until 2023.

The coalition submitted 206,943 signatures to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office on Dec. 20, 2021, ahead of a Jan. 3, 2022, deadline for its petition to be considered for the 2022 ballot. Under state law, petitioners must submit signatures 10 days before state of Ohio’s legislative session.

But LaRose, who also was named as a defendant in the April 29 lawsuit, announced his office rejected more than 87,000 of those signatures, bringing CRMLA 13,062 short of meeting the 132,877 valid signature threshold needed to send the proposal to lawmakers.

That shortcoming was announced Jan. 3 by LaRose’s office, which said the coalition had until Jan. 14 to collect the additional signatures needed. CRMLA officials turned in the additional signatures on Jan. 13, which LaRose’s office approved on Jan. 28, transmitting the initiative to Ohio legislators, who have four months from that date to consider the proposal or an amended version.

Ohio state Reps. Casey Weinstein, D-Hudson, and Terrence Upchurch, D-Cleveland, officially filed the CRMLA petition’s bill language April 20.

Should the state Legislature refuse to take up the initiative by May 28, then the coalition could collect additional signatures to place the issue on the November ballot—or at least that was the presumption.

But now GOP leadership is claiming the valid signatures not only needed to be submitted before the Jan. 3 deadline, but they also needed to be approved. In the eyes of the opposition, the additional signatures submitted on Jan. 13 missed the mark, meaning the coalition would have to wait until next year.

“To be clear, the plaintiffs believe that the secretary of state’s transmission was proper,” the lawsuit states. “However, public statements and records indicate that leadership in the Ohio General Assembly have a different interpretation of the Ohio Constitution’s relevant provision that would require the secretary of state to withhold transmitting the proposed law until the first day of the January 2023 legislative session.”

The lawsuit also includes an email exchange from Cupp’s office and Attorney General Dave Yost’s office, with Michael Walton, an associate assistant to the attorney general, writing that he agrees with the House leadership’s interpretation of the qualifying timeline.

In an email dated Jan. 7, 2022, Heather Blessing—Cupp’s deputy chief legal counsel—asked Walton for legal guidance on CRMLA’s initiated statute petition.

“My initial conclusion is that since a petition meeting all the constitutional requirements was not submitted more than 10 days before the commencement of the second regular session of the 134th [General Assembly], if the cannabis petition committee submits the additional signatures thereafter, the Secretary must withhold transmitting the petition until the first regular session of the 135th GA,” Blessing wrote. “I’m just looking for your thoughts on this interpretation.”

Walton responded on Jan. 11: “Based on a cursory review, I agree with your interpretation.”

It wasn’t until late March that statehouse insiders were “buzzing in recent days” that GOP leaders in the House and Senate were prepared to argue that the CRMLA initiative doesn’t qualify for the November 2022 ballot, according to a Gongwer, a statehouse news source. Cupp acknowledged but would not confirm that claim at the time.

“I am waiting on a legal memo from our folks, so I can’t answer the question just yet, but I might have an answer soon,” Cupp told the news service.

Because of the uncertainty associated with the differing interpretations of the timeline necessary for CRMLA’s proposed initiative to qualify for the November 2022 ballot, the group’s plaintiffs are seeking expedited consideration of their lawsuit claims for declaratory relief.

Should CRMLA be granted expedited consideration and a judge rule in the group’s favor, then the legalization advocates would need to submit an additional 132,877 valid signatures (roughly 266,000 total) by early July to put their proposal directly to the voters in November.