By Jim Provance

Backers of an effort to put the question of legalizing marijuana before Ohio voters in November filed nearly 96,000 new signatures Thursday in hopes they'll patch a roughly 30,000-signature hole identified in their prior petitions.

As county elections boards prepare to scrutinize the latest signatures, the threat of a legal battle ahead has escalated in the wake of Secretary of State Jon Husted's decision to appoint a special investigator Wednesday to look into discrepancies in the group's prior petitions.

"We are 1,000 percent confident we will qualify for November," said Ian James, ResponsibleOhio's executive director. "We're turning in well over three times the number of signatures needed. We're turning in 25,572 voter registrations along with this.

"We've been working all over the state of Ohio, mostly in nonmetro counties, to ensure that we worked in places with higher [signature] validity rates," he said.

If enough of the latest signatures survive, voters will be asked on Nov. 3 to legalize marijuana for recreational, medical, and commercial purposes and to fashion a new wholesale and retail merchandising system around it that would be regulated and taxed.

It also would ask voters to etch into the Ohio Constitution the specific locations, down to the parcel numbers, of 10 investor-owned wholesale growing facilities, including one on a North Toledo farm.

Mr. Husted's office on Wednesday issued subpoenas for the testimony of Mr. James and for records from the Strategy Network, Mr. James' firm running the petition process. The secretary of state has appointed David E. Bowers, former Allen County prosecutor, to investigate what he has characterized as potential fraud in connection with the first batch of signatures filed on June 30.

In anticipation of that move, ResponsibleOhio recently hired Andy Douglas, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice and Toledo city councilman, and Larry James, a high-profile Columbus criminal attorney.

ResponsibleOhio initially claimed to have filed just under 700,000 signatures on June 30 to put its proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot. At least 305,591 of those had to survive scrutiny to qualify.

But Mr. Husted's office later said the paper petitions sent to county boards of elections for review actually contained about 660,000 raw signatures. Of those, just 276,082 were deemed valid, nearly 30,000 shy of the minimum required. Another 384,104 were deemed invalid.

That's a validation rate of 42 percent. If that rate holds for the nearly 96,000 supplemental signatures filed Thursday, roughly 40,000 would survive, enough to fill the gap and qualify the question for the ballot.

ResponsibleOhio is exploring court action in connection with what it says are roughly 40,000 unaccounted-for signatures as well as 20,000 signatures it claims county boards of election improperly disqualified.

"They had an exponential failure rate last time, so we'll just have to see," said Elise Spriggs, spokesman for the still unofficial opposition to the proposed amendment. "Their shenanigans where they're calling into question the secretary of state's office show they will use all tactics, because they have all kinds of financial sources, to get on the ballot one way or the other."

ResponsibleOhio had a 10-day grace period to fix its petitions. Before 2013, such petition efforts could continue to gather signatures while the first batch was reviewed.

But a new law forced such efforts to halt the circulation of petitions during the review period so that any corrective signatures would have to be collected strictly during the 10-day grace period.

(c)2015 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)