Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose recently entertained the idea of making it more difficult for Ohioans to pass an adult-use cannabis legalization ballot measure in 2023.
The state’s chief elections officer told The Plain Dealer last week that he thinks the Ohio Legislature should consider raising the bar to require a 60% supermajority for voters to pass constitutional amendments on the ballot instead of the simple majority currently required.
LaRose’s recommendation comes five months after initiative organizers from the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA) struck an agreement with state lawmakers to suspend their 2022 ballot campaign and aim for 2023. Included in the settlement, the 135,000-plus certified signatures that CRMLA advocates gathered will be preserved for next year.
“We have casinos and medical marijuana and all manner of things that now have found their way into the Ohio Constitution,” LaRose told Plain Dealer reporters Oct. 27 during an endorsement interview that also included Chelsea Clark, his Democratic challenger for the Nov. 8 election.
Those comments came despite LaRose voting in favor of House Bill 523, which legalized medical cannabis in Ohio, during his time as a state senator in 2016.
“And so, I think the signature threshold may be one thing to look at,” LaRose said. “But another one might be, it takes a supermajority vote in the Legislature to refer a question to the ballot; why not require a supermajority vote of the citizens in order to pass a constitutional amendment?”
Article XVI of the Ohio Constitution requires a three-fifths majority (60%) of the Legislature to add constitutional amendments to the state ballot. That requirement is not reciprocated for citizen-led initiatives to be passed by voters.
In addition to a 2023 adult-use cannabis measure, Ohio voters could soon cast ballots on constitutional amendments regarding abortion rights and redistricting. In March, the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which LaRose serves on, voted along party lines, 5-2, to approve a redrawn congressional map that favors Republicans, but there’s been an ongoing call among Democrats to overhaul that commission with a citizen’s redistricting commission.
On Oct. 31—four days after LaRose’s sit down with The Plain Dealer—the Cleveland daily’s editorial board endorsed Clark, a Cincinnati-area entrepreneur who has a career background in education, to be the next secretary of state. The endorsement for change stemmed from a remark by LaRose that “subtly sowed doubts about the integrity of a U.S. presidential election two years ago.”
While that endorsement was based on conclusions from 2020—and implications for 2024—presidential elections, adult-use cannabis in Ohio faces a very real path to legalization in 2023, when the state’s chief elections officer will be charged with certifying signatures in two phases:
Phase 1: Signatures equal to 3% of the votes cast in the preceding gubernatorial election are required to place an initiative before the Ohio Legislature, which then has four months to vote to approve or reject the initiative, or take no action.Phase 2: If the Ohio Legislature fails to pass or act on the initiative, an additional number of signatures equal to 3% of the votes cast in the preceding gubernatorial election are required to place the initiative on the ballot.
CRMLA met the first phase’s requirement (roughly 133,000 signatures) earlier this year, before Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, and Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, succeeded in blocking the 2022 campaign effort and delaying the initiative until next year based on a signature-gathering technicality.
While LaRose certified CRMLA’s signatures from the first phase, he was also named as a defendant in a lawsuit that the group’s organizers filed in April against GOP lawmakers. The majority leadership in the Legislature argued that since CRMLA petitioners didn’t originally meet the required signature threshold—having to resubmit more signatures before LaRose’s eventual certification—they missed a deadline and were not qualified for the 2022 ballot.
When the parties reached a settlement in May for the 2023 ballot, Ohio-based attorney and CRMLA group spokesman Tom Haren said, “The most important thing for us was preserving an opportunity for Ohio voters to decide this issue.”
Now, as revealed last week, LaRose is hoping the state Legislature will up the ante with a new supermajority requirement for citizen-led initiatives. But doing so would require a constitutional amendment itself, which a supermajority of state lawmakers—or a citizens group—would need to get behind.
And the ripple effects of such a change for constitutional amendments would be far-reaching for near-term cannabis reform efforts in the Buckeye State.
In an Emerson College poll of 410 likely voters conducted this February, 50.4% of Ohioans were in support of legalizing adult-use cannabis, while 39.7% were opposed, and the remainder were undecided—far shy of the supermajority requirement that LaRose has proposed.