Will Ohio legalize recreational cannabis?

May 8, 2023 4:30 am

COLUMBUS, Ohio — APRIL 20: A man with a hat depicting a cannabis leaf joins supporters of legalized marijuana gathered to smoke products containing CBD and other cannabis related items, April 20, 2023, outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

A group called the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is currently collecting signatures to legalize the cultivation, manufacturing, testing and sale of cannabis to Ohioans age 21 and up via a ballot initiative later this year.

The argument that cannabis should be treated the same as alcohol is a common one in legalization circles.

Experts tend to say that alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis. A 2010 study of public health and safety experts rated alcohol as the most dangerous of a list of 20 drugs, ahead of heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine, the next three highest. Cannabis came in eighth in the rankings, far behind alcohol but far ahead of hallucinogens like LSD and mushrooms, which were at the bottom of the list.

As I’ve written before, cannabis is not a harmless drug. States that legalize recreational cannabis have higher rates of hospitalization for cannabis use. Legalization can also lead to more instances of impaired driving, which can extend harm to others besides the consumer of the drug. Long-term cannabis use is also related to higher levels of persistent elevated anxiety.

Meanwhile, alcohol continues to be a public health problem in Ohio. The CDC estimates over 5,700 Ohioans die from alcohol use per year, which is more than died in 2022 from Alzheimer’s or diabetes. 

These alcohol-related deaths come from poisonings, liver disease and cirrhosis, hypertension, homicide, suicide, motor vehicle crashes, heart disease, and a range of other effects of alcohol use. Alcohol is readily available and a big part of the culture. These facts combined with the danger of the drug itself leads to a lot of loss of life over a given year.

Mass legalization of cannabis is unlikely to have as big an impact on public health as alcohol currently does. Even in highly deregulated environments, it is hard to imagine cannabis use being as common as alcohol use in Ohio. To the extent that cannabis is a substitute for alcohol use, it could even curb some of the excesses of alcohol in the state. For instance, cannabis has not been found to have the relationship with suicide risk that alcohol does.

Now that nearly half the states in the U.S. have legalized recreational cannabis, we have seen that mass pandemonium has not ensued. As states like Missouri and South Dakota have passed recreational cannabis ballot initiatives, Ohio pursuing its own initiative seems almost…mundane at this point. 

Once again, Ohio is following in the footsteps of other states, making some false starts with a failed oligopolistic ballot initiative in 2015 and now potentially putting forth a more viable option in 2023.

Policy doesn’t need to be innovative to be good for people. There is certainly a prudence to waiting and seeing what happens in the other “laboratories of democracy” before adopting a policy locally. But it does make me wonder if there are better ways for us to do policy like this. 

Medical cannabis is a good intermediate policy, why haven’t we seen a thorough evaluation of that program? The only evaluations that have been done focus on “customer satisfaction,” leaving out goals like public health impacts.

And I have a feeling that’s what we’ll see when recreational cannabis becomes legal here, too. A bunch of tax revenue and a dearth of evaluation of the public health impact associated with it. Yes, programs with the revenue could make up for the public health impacts, but there is no way for us to know without evaluation.



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Rob Moore
Rob Moore

Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a public policy analysis firm based in Columbus. Moore has worked as an analyst in the public and nonprofit sectors and has analyzed diverse issue areas such as economic development, environment, education, and public health. He holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Denison University.