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Ohio Republicans propose nixing home grow, increasing taxes in sweeping changes to legal marijuana

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Banning marijuana growing at home, increasing the substance's tax rate and altering how those taxes get distributed are among vast changes Ohio Senate Republicans proposed Monday to a marijuana legalization measure approved by voters last month.

The changes emerged suddenly in committee just days before the new law is set to take effect, though their fate in the full Senate and the GOP-led House is still unclear.

The ballot measure, dubbed Issue 2, passed on the Nov. 7 election with 57% of the vote and it set to become law this Thursday, making Ohio the 24th state to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. But as a citizen-initiated statute, the Legislature is free to make tweaks on it, of which they're attempting plenty.

“The goal of this committee is to provide the people’s wishes with a safe product,” Sen. Michael Rulli, a Columbiana County Republican, said during a meeting of the Senate General Government Committee, where the changes were tacked onto an unrelated alcohol regulation bill.

Tom Haren, a spokesperson for the pro-Issue 2 campaign Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, harshly criticized the Senate rewrite.

“Some in the Ohio Senate propose to gut Issue 2’s most important provisions, including home grow and social equity, and to put in place higher taxes that will entrench the illicit market and force Ohioans to continue to buy their cannabis products in Michigan,” he said in a statement. “This is not what voters wanted.”

The Senate changes still have a long way to go, however.

If they clear the Senate floor, the Republican-majority House, which leans more in favor of overall recreational marijuana legalization than the Senate, would still have to agree to the many changes. GOP Gov. Mike DeWine, who has supported going along with at least the basics approved by voters, also must sign off on them.

Senate changes would prohibit growing marijuana at home, a departure from provisions approved by voters that allow individual Ohioans to grow up to six plants at home and up to 12 per household.

The Senate's proposal also would increase the approved tax on marijuana products of 10% to 15%. Cultivators would also be taxed at that rate under the revisions.

Tax revenue would go toward general state funding, law enforcement training, substance abuse treatment and prevention and safe driving training. Under the original statute, that revenue would have gone to local governments hosting dispensaries and a social equity program supporting those who wish to break into the cannabis industry.

The elimination is meant to keep most of the tax revenue from simply going back to the industry rather than benefitting state, according to northern Ohio Republican Sen. Rob McColley.

Senate legislation would also reduce the amount of recreational marijuana someone can legally possess at a time, as well as lower the legal THC levels for marijuana plants, from the statute's original 35% to 25%, and the levels for extracts, from the original 90% to 50%.

GOP senators also proposed several efforts to protect children from consuming or being exposed to marijuana use — a priority for the governor. Under the new measure, marijuana products would have to be sold in child-safe packaging and could not resemble any animals, fruit or fictional characters such as those from cartoons.

Advertisers would also be banned from utilizing any media or pop culture figures whose target audience is children to sell marijuana products, and dispensaries could not exist within 500 feet (152 meters) of a school, church, public library or public park.

The changes also address what opponents to Issue 2 said were “ambiguous” rules around public consumption. Non-smoking products such as edibles could be consumed publicly unless prohibited by a private establishment, but any smoking or vaping of the drug would be banned unless inside an individual's home. However, landlords could still ban tenants from smoking.

Employers would also be able to set their own rules for their employee's cannabis use and testing and can fire them for use without worrying about violating discrimination laws.

Scott Milburn, a spokesperson for the anti-Issue 2 campaign Protect Ohio Workers and Families, said in a statement that the changes make the measure “less dangerous to Ohioans and less self-serving to the industry.”

State Sen. Bill DeMora, a Columbus Democrat, slammed the changes as ignoring the will of the voters — especially the elimination of home growing, diverting tax revenue intended for local governments and lowering the THC levels.

“The voters' intent is nowhere to be found in what I call a shell of what the voters passed,” DeMora said Monday during committee.

___

This story has been updated to correct the proposed changes in THC levels included in the marijuana legalization statue. The changes would include decreasing THC levels in marijuana plants from 35% to 25% and levels in extracts from 90% to 50%.

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Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Samantha Hendrickson, The Associated Press