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Ohio residents navigate 'marijuana limbo': Legal to grow and possess, but buying prohibited

Ohioans are in a state of uncertainty as the legalization of recreational marijuana takes effect. While adults are now allowed to grow cannabis at home, purchases remain illegal.

Ohio residents woke up Thursday in a land of limbo for recreational marijuana use: Adults can now legally grow and possess cannabis at home, but cannot legally buy it.

On Wednesday night, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine urged lawmakers to quickly set parameters for Issue 2, the citizen initiative voters approved in November. While the state Senate pushed through an 11th-hour deal hours before the law took effect, the Ohio House adjourned without taking it up.

Rep. Jamie Callender said there's "no drop-dead date" for implementing a legal sales scheme, and that growing marijuana at home or allowing possession can proceed according to the voters' wishes.

He said he wants "to make sure we're thoughtful, that we've had adequate time to look at it and deal with the things that don't go into effect immediately."

Rep. Bill Seitz also defended the decision to adjourn without acting on the 160 pages of related legislation now pending in the House.

"We’re not going to pass, sight unseen, such a monstrous proposition in 48 hours. That’s nuts," Seitz said. Lawmakers need time to work through the complexities of setting up cannabis sales, taxation and a regulatory structure, he said.

DeWine, however, worried openly about a worst-case scenario developing, saying black market sales could flourish or that fentanyl- or pesticide-laced marijuana products might become more accessible. He called the current state of affairs a "recipe for disaster."

Lawmakers had four months last year to act. As a citizen-initiated statute, Issue 2 had to be submitted to the Legislature first. After the GOP-controlled Legislature chose to do nothing, the measure was placed on the Nov. 7 ballot and passed with 57% of the vote.

It allows adults 21 and over to buy and possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis and to grow up to six plants per individual or 12 plants per household at home. It gave the state nine months to set up a system for legal marijuana purchases, subject to a 10% tax. Sales revenue was to be divided between administrative costs, addiction treatment, municipalities with dispensaries, paying for social equity and jobs programs supporting the cannabis industry itself.

With just days left before the law took effect, Senate Republicans proposed a sweeping rewrite of what voters approved, angering the issue's backers and alarming both parties in the House. It would have outlawed growing at home, cut the allowable amount of pot that can be possessed to 1 ounce and raised taxes on purchases to 15%. It would also eliminate tax revenue funding for social equity programs supporting the marijuana industry and direct most of the tax money raised to a general state government fund.

The compromise negotiated with DeWine and approved 28-2 by the Senate Wednesday would cut the number of household plants allowed to six, retain the higher 15% tax on purchases and reduce the allowable THC levels for cannabis extracts from 90% to 50%. The deal would restore a 2.5 ounce possession limit and allow 35% THC in plants while nixing state control of most of the revenue.

Drafters of the legislation garnered Democratic support in part by adding a provision to expunge the criminal records of people convicted of possession up to 2.5 ounces. That measure would also require child-safe packaging and ban ads targeting children — a priority for the governor.

If legislators veer too far from what voters approved, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol or other proponents of Issue 2 can always pursue a referendum. That possibility should give lawmakers an incentive to work with proponents of more relaxed marijuana laws, said Steven Steinglass, dean emeritus of the Cleveland State University College of Law and a leading expert on Ohio’s constitution.

He said some of the maneuvering going on now is unprecedented.

"Voters have only approved three initiated statutes in 111 years, and none of the three have been amended, repealed or fiddled with by the General Assembly,"

Senate President Matt Huffman said the Senate compromise respects voters while addressing important concerns.

"I’m opposed to (legalization), but it’s the law," he said. "We don’t want illegal sales — the black market if you will — to get a foothold."

Meanwhile, there are plenty of aspects of the new Ohio law that can be immediately enforced, said Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

"As of Thursday, it’s going to be very difficult to find probable cause and to prosecute people who are carrying around less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana, but prosecutors and law enforcement are still going to be on the lookout," Tobin said. "People smoking in cars are still breaking the law, people carrying around more than 2.5 ounces are still breaking the law, people engaging in private sales are still breaking the law, people driving under the influence are still breaking the law."

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