Recreational pot referendum problematic

It was 2016 when Ohio’s medical marijuana legislation passed, yet state officials said last week they won’t be able to meet the upcoming September 8 deadline to have the program in place. (That announcement came one day after Ohio announced the selection of 56 locations where medical marijuana can be sold, including two locations in Warren and Youngstown.)

As you’ll recall, the state legislature had picked up the pace back then to pass the legislation, hoping to head off wider ranging ballot initiatives being developed by citizens that would have legalized both medical and recreational marijuana. The Gov. John Kasich administration had opposed the idea of recreational marijuana, but Kasich did sign the medical marijuana bill into law.

Passage of that bill may have been among the swiftest moves I’ve ever witnessed in state government.

So, should we be surprised that two years later, officials at the Ohio Department of Commerce now say they won’t hit the September deadline spelled out in the legislation? They’re further trying to argue that they are not breaking the law because of a technicality in wording that calls for the program to be spelled out, not necessarily implemented. Officials can’t say exactly when sales will begin.

Beware. The delays and other embarrassing missteps in Ohio’s program — including placing a convicted felon on the application screening committee, sharing passwords and missing deadlines — are being watched closely by those still hoping to reinitiate attempts to pass ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana.

Voters defeated a similar measure in Ohio at least once, in 2015 by a 64 to 36 percent margin.

Now Ian James, the founder of Green Light Acquisitions LLC, who ran that unsuccessful ballot campaign to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana, plans to pursue another constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana for personal use, which could appear on the 2020 ballot. He also is pushing a so-called “Fresh Start Act,” which calls for purging non-violent marijuana crimes that are now legal from offenders’ records. If lawmakers don’t act, he said his campaign organization would push that as a ballot initiative as well.

The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer also reported in December that Jimmy Gould, co-founder of Ohio’s 2015 failed recreational marijuana legalization measure, was planning to back a new legalization effort this year for free market recreational marijuana.

Gould and James had unsuccessfully applied for one of the state’s medical marijuana cultivator licenses. Gould had threatened to sue the state over what he perceived as flaws in the license application scoring process. The state, however, defended the process and moved forward.

Likewise, on the marijuana issue, member boards of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral health Authorities oppose the legalization and commercialization of marijuana for recreational purposes and also oppose the constitutional amendment process for the purpose of legalizing the personal use of marijuana, designation of growth sites and designation of testing facilities.

Before the Ohio legislature passed the medical marijuana issue into law, that association argued that legalizing marijuana for medical use should have been decided not on the state level but by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, using the same guidelines as any other potential medicine.

Still, citizens are pushing the hand of state government with threats to have voters pass their own laws if the legislature fails to act to their satisfaction.

The ability to place these types of issues on the ballot to become law — sometimes bad law — is problematic. We in Ohio and America operate with a representative form of government. Don’t we elect our leaders to research and debate issues, to listen to the constituency and then to make law? If voters don’t like the outcome, then they may speak about their representation at election time.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure what upsets me more — the potential legalization of recreational marijuana or the use of ballot initiatives to establish law.