Ohio U.S. Sens. Brown, Portman Split on Federal Cannabis Policy
Representing different parties, Ohio U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown (left) and Rob Portman also represent different stances on federal cannabis policy.
Offices of Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman

Ohio U.S. Sens. Brown, Portman Split on Federal Cannabis Policy

Brown voices concerns over racial disparities and injustices caused by prohibition; Portman expresses perception of increased use among youth.

November 19, 2021

There’s a 60-vote rule in the U.S. Senate.

Simply put, if 60 of 100 members of the body are in favor of legislation, then no more debate is needed—any filibuster attempts are defeated, and the bill gets sent to the president’s desk for final consideration.

If the upper chamber of Congress was representative of majority opinion on cannabis, then there would be no more debate on public policy regarding the end of prohibition. Theoretically, 68 or 69 senators—depending on which poll is used—would be in favor of fully legalizing cannabis at the federal level.

In a November 2021 Gallup Poll, 68% of Americans said they support legalizing cannabis, while 69% expressed support in an April 2021 poll from Quinnipiac University.

Debate on Capitol Hill continues, nevertheless.

A political split on the issue is perhaps no more evident than in Ohio, where Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown supports the federal decriminalization of cannabis, while Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman continues to have concerns about broadly legalizing the plant.

Ohio is one of five states that currently has one Republican and one Democrat in the U.S. Senate—the others being Montana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Although Maine and Vermont each have one Independent U.S. senator.

“Not only have there been proven medical benefits of marijuana, but the disproportionate harm the war on drugs has had on communities of color demands that we do away with ineffective laws that do more harm than good,” Brown said in a letter from his office on cannabis policy.

The chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, Brown went on and said, “While our country continues to have a vigorous debate about legalizing marijuana, we should be guided by this principle: no one should be thrown in jail or have their future jeopardized by a criminal record over marijuana-related, non-violent offenses. This has been the case for too many Americans, particularly Black and Brown Americans.”

Even as cannabis legalization continues to spread throughout the U.S., law enforcement agents still arrest hundreds of thousands of people for cannabis-related offenses each year in the U.S. In 2019, there were 362,000 arrests for cannabis possession in the U.S., according to New Frontier data.

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Despite similar rates of cannabis use, Black people (with a past-month cannabis use rate of 12.8%) are 3.6 times more likely than white people (10.6% past-month cannabis use rate) to be arrested for cannabis, according to New Frontier. The federal government spends roughly $33 billion each year prosecuting the results of the drug war.

Source: New Frontier Data

Meanwhile, Portman said he understands Ohio and other states’ decisions to legalize medical cannabis, but he continues to have concerns about the unintended consequences of legalizing adult-use cannabis.

“At the height of the devastating opioid epidemic in our state, I continue to have concerns about the legalization of marijuana and drugs more broadly,” Portman said in a letter from his office on cannabis policy. “In particular, I am concerned that legalizing marijuana will lead to an increase in use among children and teenagers.”

The opioid epidemic contributed to a new 12-month high in the U.S., with 100,306 drug-overdose deaths from April 2020 to April 2021—rising nearly 29% from the previous 12-month period—according to provisional data released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But many cannabis reform advocates have suggested cannabis as an alternative to prescription drugs and opioid use.

In an interview with Fox Business’s “Kennedy” this week, U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., shared a personal story following the Nov. 15 unveiling of her sponsored States Reform Act—legislation that would end federal cannabis prohibition, impose a 3% federal cannabis excise tax, regulate interstate commerce and expunge cannabis-related convictions for non-violent offenses, among other provisions.

RELATED: GOP Congresswoman Mace Spices Up Federal Cannabis Legalization

Mace said when she was raped at the age of 16, she was prescribed medication that made “the feelings I had of depression worse.” She said she stopped taking those prescription drugs and “I turned to cannabis for a brief period of time in my life.”

Portman’s concern about legalization’s impact on youth use was shared among many lawmakers who debated adult-use bills in their states this year. That perception was debunked in Colorado.

A guinea pig for adult-use cannabis after voters passed Amendment 64 in 2012, the Colorado General Assembly mandates a biennial report on the impacts of cannabis legalization. Commissioned by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, the most recent edition of the 188-page report was released in July.

The report’s preparer, Jack K. Reed, a statistical analyst with the state’s Office of Research and Statistics, found that the proportion of Colorado high school students reporting using cannabis ever in their lifetime remained statistically stagnant from 36.9% in 2013 to 35.9% in 2019—all while the national rate was slightly higher at 36.8% in 2019.

Nonetheless, Portman said his concerns are shared by doctors from the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and Metro Health who have opposed legalization, citing scientific evidence that cannabis use has harmful effects on the brains of teens and young adults.

In a 2019 news release from the Cleveland Clinic, Paul Terpeluk, medical director of the clinic’s employee health services, said the Cleveland Clinic believes there are better alternatives to medical cannabis.

“In the world of health care, a medication is a drug that has endured extensive clinical trials, public hearings and approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” Terpeluk said in the release. “Medications are tested for safety and efficacy. They are closely regulated, from production to distribution. They are accurately dosed, down to the milligram.

“Medical marijuana is none of those things.”

Portman said he has worked for more than 20 years with a community anti-drug coalition focused on preventing drug abuse that “can too often lead to addiction.” In Cincinnati, Portman chaired the coalition for more than nine years.

“Evidence-based drug prevention is something I am passionate about, especially when it comes to young people,” he said. “Improving and protecting the health of all Americans must be one of our country’s top priorities, … I will continue to advocate for effective ways to prevent substance abuse and addiction in Ohio and beyond.”

From legislation that would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level to legislation providing a safe harbor for banks and other financial institutions that serve cannabis-related businesses, to legislation that would permit federal funding of clinical research on potential opportunities for medical cannabis, Brown said, “there are many complex issues to consider when it comes to updating our nation’s approach to regulating marijuana.”

As politicians consider changes to these laws, Brown said, “We must acknowledge the damage the so-called ‘war on drugs’ did to so many Black and Brown communities in this country. It resulted in too many Americans being sent to prison, separated from their families and denied opportunities because of non-violent drug offenses, and contributed to economic and health disparities. We have much work to do to undo the damage the war on drugs has done, and reforming our policies towards marijuana is an important step.”

At the state level, Republicans are split in the Ohio General Assembly, with 43% saying adult-use cannabis should be legalized and 43% saying it should not (14% are undecided), according to a recent Gongwer Werth Legislative Opinion Poll. Meanwhile, 36% of Democrats in the Ohio Legislature are in favor of adult-use legalization, 14% are opposed and 50% remain undecided.

Both Republican-sponsored and Democrat-sponsored bills to legalize adult-use cannabis have been introduced by state lawmakers in Ohio.