By Phillip Smith
It's now less than three weeks until Buckeye State voters head to the polls in an off-year election, and they make make Ohio the first Midwestern state to legalize marijuana. A poll this week that asked specifically if respondents supported the initiative on the ballot had 56% saying yes.
They will be voting on Issue 3, a controversial proposal sponsored by ResponsibleOhio that would legalize both medical and recreational marijuana use, cultivation, and distribution. The measure would establish a 10-grower "monopoly" on commercial marijuana production (but not sales) and allow individuals to grow up to four plants for personal use if they pay a $50 license fee and if they keep the plants hidden from public view.
But despite the favorable poll numbers -- even better than the 53% approval of a generic marijuana legalization question in a poll two weeks ago -- victory is by no means a sure thing. It is an off-year election with traditionally low voter turnout among groups likely to be supportive, the effort is opposed by the state's political establishment, and even if it wins, it could be tangled up in court for years because that GOP establishment has placed an initiative on the ballot, Issue 2, specifically designed to invalidate Issue 3. That initiative would bar Issue 3 from taking effect, as a constitutional "monopoly," and would put similar questions on the ballot when other monopoly or oligopoly measures appear in the future.
If both initiatives pass, state officials say Issue 2 will supersede Issue 3, but other legal experts say it's not so clear, especially if the legalization initiative wins more votes than the anti-monopoly initiative, which the new poll suggests it could If both pass, legalization will, at best, be delayed until the mess is sorted out in the courts.
With the exception of NORML, national drug reform groups have kept their distance. The NORML board of directors endorsed Issue 3 last month, but neither the Marijuana Policy Project nor the Drug Policy Alliance have, both of which endorse marijuana legalization in general, have made much noits about this initiative.
When it comes to in-state endorsements, ResponsibleOhio looks pretty isolated, with support from the Ohio ACLU, some UFCW locals, and a handful of elected officials, while those taking a stand against the measure include the state Green, Libertarian, and Republican parties, business groups, medical groups, law enforcement groups, children's advocates, and many state political figures, including Republican Gov. John Kasich and Attorney General Mike DeWine.
The initiative has also infuriated many Ohio marijuana activists, who see their years of work going up in smoke in the face of well-heeled investors in ResponsibleOhio, who have generally had little to do with marijuana reform, but who know a money-making opportunity when they see one. By buying into the campaign, those investors have secured their positions controlling the ten designated commercial grows.
"We don't support the ResponsibleOhio initiative because we don't believe it achieves the goals of legalization, said Sri Kavuru, president of Ohioans to End Prohibition (OTEP), which is campaigning to get its own initiative on the 2016 ballot. "I testified in favor of the anti-monopoly amendment, and I believe it will pass and get more votes than ResponsibleOhio," he told the Chronicle in August.
"It is very interesting that all these different parties have come together with the same purpose in mind, to stop the hijacking of our constitution by private interests," Weaver said. "It's very strange indeed, but the collaboration of different groups for a mutually beneficial and moral purpose, I think, is a good thing."
It's also caused a split in Ohio NORML, with the state group throwing out its former leader, Rob Ryan, over his position in support of the initiative.
But the state's largest pro-medical marijuana organization, the Ohio Patients Group, endorsed Issue 3 this week. The group said that, given the lack of a viable alternative and the legislature's refusal to advance the cause, telling its members to vote against the initiative would be doing them a disservice.
"It wasn't a perfect plan, but politics is never the art of the perfect, it's the art of possible," Pardee said.
But when you've got money, you don't need that many friends. In a neat political and financial move, ResponsibleOhio and its chairman, Ian James, are using those investor dollars to finance their campaign advertising. The group has spent $3.1 million so far on TV ads, and has millions more where that came from to get them through the election.
The first ad, "Bring Addy Home," which began airing in late August, features Heather Benton, who moved to Colorado in order to obtain medical marijuana to treat her four-year-old daughter's seizures.
"We want to move back to Ohio, but we can't because her medicine is illegal there," says the exiled Benton. "It is time for marijuana reform. It is time to go home."
One of the latest ads takes on the charge from opponents that the initiative would create a monopoly in the state's Constitution. (Voters did something quite similar back in 2009, when they approved a constitutional initiative allowing a strictly limited number of casinos.). This initiative isn't a monopoly, the ad argues.
"Like most states that legalized marijuana, it initially limits the number of growers with strict regulation," a woman says in the ad. "That's a regulated industry without creating a monopoly."
Can ResponsibleOhio pull it off? We won't know until the votes are counted, but if marijuana legalization wins in swing-state Ohio in 2015, that could take the politics of legalization to a whole new level in front of the 2016 general election, where the issue is already likely to be on the ballot in several states -- Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada -- and maybe more.