Marijuana Legalization Fight In Ohio

[ Posted Thursday, August 13th, 2015 – 17:22 UTC ]

Legalizing both medicinal and recreational marijuana will be on the ballot in Ohio this November. But this news is actually dividing marijuana activists once again, which might have some political repercussions for the entire movement. Because of the way the proposed law was drafted, it would create an official oligopoly of only ten growers for the entire state. Ohio has over 11 million people, so each official farm would serve the needs of over one million people. That's pretty unbalanced, to put it mildly, since the other 75,000 farmers in the state would be out in the cold.

The initiative's backers, ResponsibleOhio, issued a statement upon learning their measure had qualified for this year's ballot:

It's time for marijuana legalization in Ohio, and voters will have the opportunity to make it happen this November -- we couldn't be more excited. Drug dealers don't care about doing what's best for our state and its citizens. By reforming marijuana laws in November, we'll provide compassionate care to sick Ohioans, bring money back to our local communities and establish a new industry with limitless economic development opportunities.

This last bit is almost Orwellian in phrasing, since the "limitless economic development opportunities" will indeed be limited to only ten farms. These ten farmers will have "limitless" chances to make money for themselves, which is pretty much the entire complaint against the proposed law.

This battle is yet another example of how, at times, marijuana activists tend to fight among themselves rather than devoting their energies to working toward a common goal. It's also an indicator of how much money is involved in the legal marijuana industry, and how money can be a corrupting distraction for the pro-legalization movement. But, in their defense, the ten farm owners (whose farm locations are explicitly written into the proposal's text) were the ones who put up the money to get the proposal on the ballot. So far, they've spent over a million bucks to get all the signatures, and they say they're going to spend up to $20 million on advertising and supporting the measure to get people to vote for it. It's their money, so why shouldn't they write the text to favor them? Nothing wrong with that, really. The voters can see the text, and the voters can decide.

A case can be made that the proposed law is a big step in the right direction, and that the whole oligopoly problem can be changed later, perhaps after the federal government eases up on marijuana law. Russ Belville makes this case today in the Huffington Post. His main points are that the law wouldn't be all that bad for the consumer, on a par with (and in some ways better than) other states that have legalized both medical and recreational marijuana. The law does allow people to grow up to four plants at home, for instance. And it would radically change the legalities for police, which could go a long way towards changing the official police attitude towards marijuana in Ohio. But the last argument he makes is a purely political one:

Ohio's legalization will not occur in a vacuum. California, Nevada, and other states are waiting on deck for 2016. Will they have to fight a shift in political momentum after a fresh defeat for legalization in Ohio? Or will they cruise on the wave of legalization that saw Colorado and Washington win in 2012, Oregon and Alaska win in 2014, and Ohio win in 2015?

Legalization of marijuana in Ohio in 2015 will put the marijuana legalization issue even more strongly into the 2016 Presidential Election. That battleground swing state is the key to a Republican victory; it's been decades since the GOP won without it. A loss there in 2015 could embolden certain GOP candidates to be even tougher on existing marijuana legalization, while a victory there could force them to tone down the anti-pot rhetoric.

This ballot initiative, however, might be doomed even if it does pass. The Ohio legislature, to signal its disapproval of state-authorized oligopolies, put another measure on the same 2015 ballot. It will ban any Ohio constitutional change (the legalization initiative is actually a state constitutional amendment) that creates "a monopoly, oligopoly or cartel" which involves "Schedule I" banned substances. Legislative ballot initiatives, if approved by the voters, go into effect immediately, but citizen-written initiatives must wait 30 days. This means if the voters pass both initiatives, the legalization one will die before it goes into effect (the legislative one makes clear that it would not only ban oligopolies, but that any initiative which tries to create one will be voided in its entirety -- meaning the oligopoly part couldn't be struck down while the legalization part becomes law). If both initiatives pass, it'll wind up in the courts, that's for sure.

The voters of Ohio may just decide not to pass the legalization initiative in the first place, though. Support is only barely above 50 percent (51 and 52 in the two most-recent polls I found), and many legalization supporters are angry with the oligopoly text in the law, so they may vote it down and perhaps try again in 2016 with a better-drafted initiative. But if the law winds up in the courts or is voted down, some may indeed see it as a political blow to the national movement.

This is kind of a shame, because as I mentioned one of the biggest problems the legalization movement faces is squabbling among themselves. California was the pioneer (in recent times) in putting a recreational legalization initiative on the ballot, but Proposition 19 went down to defeat in part because the growers themselves came out against it -- mostly out of fear that they wouldn't continue their rather large profit margins if marijuana were fully legal. Another big factor in Prop 19's defeat was that it was on the ballot in a non-presidential year, when many young people don't show up to vote.

Ohio voters who support legalization are being given a tough choice. Vote for a flawed initiative, or signal their disapproval of the language by voting against it? Vote for an anti-oligopoly initiative (while knowing it would overturn the legalization initiative), or just go ahead and support the future fortunes of ten growers?

Politically, though, I don't think it'll be that bad for the national movement if ResponsibleOhio's effort fails (in one way or another). California's failure taught many valuable lessons to the national movement (especially on how to create effective television ads). Oregon voted down their first legalization initiative because it also was seen as seriously flawed -- in the same year that Washington and Colorado were successful. But then two years later, Oregon voters approved a better-constructed legalization law. Ohio is somewhat jumping the gun, since most legalization activists are shooting for the 2016 election (presidential years mean big turnouts of possible legalization supporters), and not 2015 (which is an "off/off" year election, since House members aren't even up for a vote). Ohio could become a good example of how not to write legalization initiatives. This, in and of itself, would be valuable to the movement in general. A good bad example is always handy to have, in other words.

Most in the world of marijuana activism are intently focused on 2016. At least five states (and possibly ten or more) will likely have recreational legalization on the ballot. The 2016 election might indeed be the tipping point where the federal government finally is forced to admit reality and institute some much-needed reforms at the federal level. If weed's legal on the entire West Coast (from Nome to San Diego), it'll be pretty hard for Congress and the White House to continue to ignore the issue. Marijuana activists already know they're not going to win every battle, and that opportunists are always going to be around. The states are indeed working as "laboratories of democracy" on marijuana legalization -- meaning some will get it right and some won't.

Whether Ohio approves a marijuana oligopoly that later needs amending or whether they vote down the concept entirely, it probably won't have that much negative political effect on the movement in 2016. If the law fails, legalization advocates can rightfully claim it was a flawed initiative. This provides a kind of "built-in excuse" if it fails to pass, in fact, which would tend to blunt any claim that the public's solidly on the anti-legalization side of things. If it does pass, it can always be changed later and Ohio will become the first state east of the Rockies with legal weed (and marijuana tourism will become a lot cheaper for the entire East Coast, since Ohio's not all that far away). Either way, the national movement might just advance regardless of what Ohio does this year.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Marijuana Legalization Fight In Ohio”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    You can't change the rules for a ballot proposal after it's already passed. It may be allowed under current precedent, but it shouldn't be.

  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Ten marijuana farms is twice the number of electric utilities in Ohio. Also twice the number of natural gas suppliers. Not all ballot issue monopolies will be prohibited, that will be determined by a commission. Some monopolies good, some bad. That's problematic and certainly going to be litigated in the courts. Once again, Ohio government marches boldly into the future with its head planted firmly up its ass. A psychological defense against unintended consequences.

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