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Should Ohio Legalize Marijuana?

Cartoon by Dan Gibson

On Nov. 3, a cannabis revolution could happen in Ohio, where voters will have the opportunity to legalize personal use of marijuana for adults over 21 and medical marijuana access, all at the same time. But the effort, run by ResponsibleOhio, has been controversial from the start—not because it would tax and regulate pot, but because of who would profit from it.

The Controversy

A group of wealthy backers formed ResponsibleOhio last year. They spent more than $2 million to gather the 305,000 petition signatures needed to qualify their initiative for the ballot. Now they’re spending millions more in a frantic push to win and amend Ohio’s state constitution.

The measure, designated Issue 3, was certified by Ohio Secretary of State John A. Hustead on Aug. 12. But its details have been a magnet for heavy criticism.

The usual adversaries—prosecutors, police and drug-prevention groups—have come out strongly against Issue 3. They aren’t the only ones: Ohio Governor John Kasich, who’s running for President, has opposed it, along with pretty much the entire Ohio Legislature.

They’ve rolled out the usual and often false assertions about the dangers of legalization. But the opposition’s main message is that it will create a cartel at the wholesale level. A long list of business groups, trade associations and even pro-marijuana organizations have united in their distaste for this form of ending cannabis prohibition.

The core sticking point is Issue 3’s provision that just 10 businesses would grow all of the state’s legal cannabis; those contracts would not be up for bid. The owners of those businesses are, naturally, the ones funding the campaign.

The textbook definition of a cartel is “an association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition.” Legal marijuana cartels already exist in states like New Jersey and New York, which have licensed a handful of businesses (five in New York and six in New Jersey) to supply medical marijuana. Delaware actually operates a pure monopoly for medical marijuana, with just a single supplier and dispensary operator licensed. Cannabis organizations and many advocates cheered these states on.

Reform groups such as NORML and the MPP have thrown some support toward Issue 3, but have done so cautiously. In a letter to NORML’s membership, founder Keith Stroup explained their reason for backing Issue 3, albeit with reservations:

“The NORML board felt obliged to hold our noses and endorse Issue 3 in Ohio. It was, as the saying goes, ‘a bitter pill to swallow,’ and the board wanted to make it clear we do not consider the Ohio proposal the best model for other states to follow. There are far better ways to legalize marijuana. Most of us would prefer to keep the focus on protecting personal freedom and ending marijuana arrests. Greed is a common motivator in our free-market system, but it would be preferable to keep it out of our public policy debates. But in some states, where the elected officials are not responsive to the will of the voters, we may have to accept legalization that is profit-driven, as the most realistic way to end prohibition. That was the conclusion we reached regarding Ohio, and I believe it was the right decision. But it surely does feel like the loss of innocence.”

Like Amendment 64 in Colorado, Issue 3 would amend the state constitution. This approach does an end-run around the legislature; politicians have little or no say in how the measure would get implemented, and no control over how the potentially large tax windfall would be distributed.

In an exclusive interview with Freedom Leaf, ResponsibleOhio’s Executive Director Ian James explains: “We made sure 85% of the taxes go to the local community and county governments for safety, infrastructure and bridge repair—fill potholes with pot money. And that money is distributed per capita, based on the county population. The remaining 15% goes to the Marijuana Control Commission [MCC], which will oversee the new industry, and regulate and enforce the law. That’s why we went directly to communities with the taxes; we do not trust the state House.”

James and ResponsibleOhio are not part of the clique-y world of marijuana reform nonprofits and the existing cannabis industry. Supported by millions of dollars of investor funding, the organization is forging ahead with their new approach to cannabis legalization. This likely explains why industry insiders and local grassroots cannabis activists are shying away from backing Issue 3.

“There’s nothing ‘responsible’ about ResponsibleOhio,” says Tricia Sprankle, Political Director of the Libertarian Party of Ohio. “This isn’t a proposal to restore rights to Ohioans. It’s a crony scheme to line the pockets of a few wealthy investors.”

Green Party of Ohio Co-Chair Bob Fitrakis calls Issue 3 “the worst in cannabis capitalism.”

Athens-based attorney, former NORML board member and hemp pioneer Don Wirtshafter agrees: “I’m extremely upset by the move to lock these monopolies into our constitution in a way that will never be changed in our lifetime.”

James takes issue with that charge. “Voters here want middle-of-the-road, tightly regulated marijuana reform,” he explains. “Reform with unlimited grows and licensing—the voters translate that into the ‘Wild West of Weed.’ That will never fly in Ohio. The state could limit the number of licenses for grows so the government can properly regulate this. Issue 3 also allows the state to increase the number of licenses above 10 to meet the demands of medical and adult consumers. It will be as many as the market provides and allows.”

Responsible Ohio also didn’t win over any of their detractors when they introduced a garish mascot named “Buddie” in August. The idea is to appeal to the college crowd, but it wasn’t taken that way. Buddie is dressed in white spandex, bright green gloves, boots and a cape, and his head is a cartoonish representation of the cannabis bud, with a sly smile. (Stephen Colbert insists he looks more like a Brussels sprout.) The gallivanting nugget has been an easy target and has helped stoke fears of increased youth marketing with legal weed, a la Joe Camel.

But Buddie doesn’t seem to bother the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which provided the strongest endorsement of the controversial initiative to date. “Issue 3 needs to pass on Election Day because its failure may well mean another 10 or 20 years of the same bad policies of excessive punishment, a justice system clogged by marijuana prosecutions, lives ruined by prison and marijuana in the hands of illegal, unregulated and dangerous cartels,” Christine Link, ACLU-OH Executive Director, stated on Sept. 21.

The Details

Here’s what Issue 3 would do:
• Allow for the possession up to eight ounces of marijuana and home cultivation of up to four plants
• Create 10 cultivation centers in 10 counties throughout the state that will provide all of the wholesale supply, plus licenses for more than 1,150 retail locations.
• Grow medical cannabis on the same wholesale farms. Taxes on adult-use marijuana will help cover the costs for low-income patients.

The Legislature Strikes Back

Incensed at the prospect that legalization might succeed, Ohio state legislators acted quickly to put a counter-initiative on the ballot. Certified as Issue 2, it’s known as the “Ohio Initiated Monopolies Amendment.”

The measure would “prohibit from taking effect any proposed constitutional amendment appearing on the November 3, 2015 General Election ballot that creates a monopoly, oligopoly or cartel for the sale, distribution or other use of any federal Schedule I controlled substance.”

If both Issues 2 and 3 win, the whole thing could end up in court.

Secretary of State Hustead thinks one might trump the other: “Should both proposed measures be approved, the anti-monopoly amendment put forth by the legislature would go into effect first and its provision banning a monopoly from inclusion in the constitution would serve as an effective roadblock to ResponsibleOhio’s amendment taking effect.”

Should Issue 2 pass, it could prevent other attempts at legalization in the future in Ohio, not just in 2015. That may be the plan.

The Quarterback

Ian James, CEO of The Strategy Network, has spent more than three decades running political campaigns and doing grassroots organizing. He’s a hardcore political operator who knows polling, focus groups and media.

It was medical marijuana that got him interested in working on this campaign. “My mother-in-law is a breast cancer survivor who went through chemo and got addicted to pain pills, until we did a family intervention,” he says. “We asked her why she didn’t try medical marijuana for the pain. She said, ‘Because it’s not legal.’ I thought it was time to take up this fight, to make sure we addressed this social injustice.”

James adds: “If you’re black in Ohio, you’re four times more likely to get arrested [for marijuana]. We’ve got to get over this criminalization.”

It all started when James “brought the marijuana idea to my friend Paul Demarco, who said he would bring people to the table to organize and raise the money. Then I met sports agent Jimmy Gould; he knows a great many people. We began to assemble this kind of a who’s-who group of celebrities and business people that was atypical of the approaches taken elsewhere. If this ends prohibition, stops the arrest of 20,000 people per year and provides compassion to the people who need it, then it gets to the end result of social justice for Ohioans.”

Issue 2 is a sore sport for James, who refers to it as “the drug dealer protection act. It’s not what they intended,” he adds, “but that’s what it does. The impact is far beyond drug policy. Its scope and nature is troubling and dangerous. Voters will likely reject it.”

He also notes that “there will also be a medical marijuana dispensary system and a sliding scale to ensure every patient has access to medicine at a price they can afford. Patients will pay the lowest wholesale price with no tax. If they can only afford $10 and their meds cost $100, the MCC will cover the other $90 with tax funds from personal use.”

As far as polling, James says, “We continue to see eight out of 10 voters support medical marijuana and six of 10 support adult personal use. So a majority supports the amendment. Opposition is in the 30% range. We chose an off-year election where we expect a 2.9% voter turnout because we have the ability to have such a well-defined, adult conversation with voters. You don’t get that robust conversation during a presidential election. We chose this year to have this kind of conversation and mobilize the voters. I’m 95% confident we can win this. It’s a Lincoln-esque cause. I think it’s going to be close.”

A Personal Note

My family is from Ohio. They’re Irish Catholics who worked in auto factories around Cleveland and started businesses in the rolling farmland in the center of the state. They race home-tuned drag cars on the weekend, root for the Browns in the fall and volunteer at the local fire departments.
Politically, Ohioans are a mixed bunch. My family is split right down the middle, with Republicans and Democrats sharing marriages and dinner tables.

While conversations on current events during family reunions are always lively, there are a lot of things they agree on: equal rights for the LGBT community, support for the military and lower taxes. They often vote for local and national candidates outside of their party registration.

By and large, they have always supported my 20-year effort in marijuana reform activism.

I spoke with dozens of people in Ohio for this article. They’re certainly aware of Issue 3, and many support legalization. Still, surprisingly few were willing to commit one way or the other on how they would vote, although many voters I spoke with said it was the only thing that might bring them to the polls this election.

If Issue 3 wins (and Issue 2 loses), it will have a massive impact nationally in the movement to legalize marijuana in all 50 states. Until now, retail marijuana has remained West of the Rocky Mountains. This could show the country that the end to cannabis prohibition is not a piecemeal effort, but a true national movement.

Win or lose, Issue 3 will also impact regional politics in surrounding states like Michigan, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The stakes in this game are definitely high.