Ohio lawmakers consider medical marijuana, gun crimes and voting changes

State Sen. Steve Huffman’s bill to update his earlier law on medical marijuana got a fifth hearing before the House Government Oversight Committee on Thursday but didn’t get a vote advancing it to the full House floor.

Huffman, R-Tipp City, sponsored the original medical marijuana law five years ago. His update, Senate Bill 261, would add to the list of conditions eligible for medical marijuana, and the ways in which it can be taken. Huffman said it still prohibits smoking the drug. It would also increase authorized growing space and allow up to six times the current number of legal dispensaries.

The bill’s fifth hearing drew no in-person testimony; only a written statement from Nationwide Children’s Hospital objecting to the inclusion of autism as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use, noting that the State Medical Board of Ohio has rejected petitions for that three times.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Twp., added an amendment to Huffman’s bill to require uniform federal standards on testing marijuana’s strength.

Huffman introduced his bill in November 2021. It passed the Senate in December 2021 and has been in the House Government Oversight Committee since January.

Gun punishment

A bill to increase penalties on people caught multiple times for illegally having guns had its fourth hearing but didn’t get a committee vote.

Currently anyone charged with repeatedly having a gun while prohibited from doing so can be convicted of a third-degree felony, which may not result in jail time, according to state Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, the bill’s sponsor. Ohio has a short list of reasons people can be forbidden from owning guns: if they’re a convicted felon, drug addict or alcoholic, or have been judged mentally incompetent.

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Koehler’s House Bill 383 says if the someone is caught illegally having guns three or more times, that becomes a second-degree felony - which carries mandatory jail time.

Brian Skinner, office of the Ohio Public Defender, argued that the bill wouldn’t really improve public safety and would cost taxpayers more.

For a former felon to have a firearm is not proof the person intends to commit a violent crime, he said. People with prison records have a hard time finding good jobs, and often live in poorer, high-crime neighborhoods. They may only want a gun for self-protection, and dogs, burglar alarms or moving are all more expensive than firearms, Skinner said.

Jailing one person under this stricter standard would cost taxpayers perhaps $238,000, he said.

Voting changes

A long list of changes to state election laws got a third hearing but no committee vote, even as a substitute bill altered the proposal substantially.

House Bill 294 is sponsored by Seitz and state Rep. Sharon Ray, R-Wadsworth. They introduced it in June, and in committee Thursday Seitz replaced it with a substitute bill.

The “Enact Ohio Election Security and Modernization Act” would make many minor or procedural changes, but also some major ones to Ohio’s voting laws.

One of the biggest changes would have been to allow automatic registration through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles — but no longer.

“We are removing all of the language related to automated voter registration which was in the prior version,” Seitz said. He’s been negotiating with Senate for five months on that, he said.

“The Senate does not yet feel comfortable with automated voter registration,” Seitz said.

Likewise, a provision to issue free state photo ID cards is out. The Senate will probably file its own bill to do that, Seitz said.

According to bill analysis by the state Legislative Service Commission, the original bill specified that electronic versions of utility bills or bank statements, instead of paper ones, are allowable ID for voting. The new version doesn’t mention it.

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The substitute bill adds a requirement that driver’s licenses and state ID cards issued to noncitizens must indicate that person’s noncitizen status, in line with a state constitutional amendment passed Nov. 8 barring noncitizens from voting in any Ohio election.

The new version eliminates the secretary of state’s ability to mail absentee ballot applications without a specific request from a voter. The same goes for local boards of election. Election officials would also be prohibited from prepaying postage on absentee ballots or applications.

The bill would eliminate the last day of early in-person voting, the Monday before Election Day; but would add an equal number of hours to early voting during the previous week.

Finally, the bill appropriates $7.5 million to buy electronic pollbooks.

Representatives of several groups spoke against the bill. Most of them opposed limitations on ballot drop boxes, and against removal from the bill of automatic voter registration.

Chris Tavenor, Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, said the only real improvement in the bill’s latest version is allowing online applications for absentee ballots.

Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said she supports that and a few other provisions, but overall sees the bill as creating more barriers to voting.

It would create two deadlines for requesting an absentee ballot: seven days prior to an election for a paper request, 10 days for requesting one online. To avoid voter confusion, both should be seven days, she said.

Conversely, the deadline for returning absentee ballots to boards of election should be 10 days, instead of being shortened to seven, Miller said. The shorter deadline would impact military voters, she said.

Miller said grandchildren should be added to the list of relatives allowed to drop off ballots on others’ behalf.

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