Fierce campaign rages over making marijuana legal in Ohio
If Issue 3 passes, it may be just a matter of months before regulators start writing rules and issuing licenses, investors begin building facilities and growing marijuana plants and retailers open stores.
Or the whole thing could be tied up in the courts long past Election Day. In an unusual and confusing twist, supporters of Issue 3 could lose even if they win.
Appearing on the ballot are two pot-related issues and the first one — Issue 2 — is designed to overturn the Issue 3 result if it passes. Added to the ballot by the Ohio General Assembly before its summer recess, Issue 2 would also prohibit business interests from using the state constitution to secure for themselves monopolies, oligopolies, cartels or special tax rates in the future.
If both issues pass, and at least one poll says they will, a constitutional conflict could ensue that would likely require the courts to untangle.
To say the two pot issues are the marquee contests in this year’s November election is an understatement. By now, you have seen the television commercials, your mailbox has been jammed with full-color mailers and your friends and neighbors have been talking more about marijuana than you’ve heard since your days in high school or college.
Ohio voters will decide a major public policy question: Should marijuana be legal in Ohio for adults age 21 and older for medical or recreational use?
Early voting began Oct. 6 but most voters will cast their ballots on Nov. 3.
Issue 3 is backed by ResponsibleOhio, a $20-million campaign backed by 10 wealthy investor groups. It would legalize marijuana, authorize limited home growing, and designate 10 parcels — controlled by the campaign investors — as the only places where weed can be grown on a commercial basis.
If Ohio says yes and the issue survives all legal challenges the state would be the first in the nation to go from full prohibition to full legalization without first installing a medical marijuana program. It would also be the first to authorize recreational pot in an off-year election cycle when voter turnout is typically lower. (Twenty-three states have legal medical marijuana, including four that authorized recreational weed.)
Legalizing marijuana enjoys majority support among Ohioans, particularly young voters, but it is unclear whether that will translate into a yes vote on Issue 3. Nine out of 10 Ohio voters support medical marijuana and 53 percent believe adults should be allowed to legally possess small amounts of weed, according to an Oct. 8 Quinnipiac University poll, but the survey did not specifically ask about Issues 2 and 3.
Another poll released last week, a Kent State University study commissioned by WKYC-TV in Cleveland, found support for both issues on the Ohio ballot. According to that poll, 56 percent of registered voters said they would vote yes on Issue 3 and 54 percent said they would vote the same way on Issue 2, though 24 percent said they were still undecided about the issue.
“It was surprising to see that a majority of Ohio voters know that issue 3 is related to legalizing marijuana, suggesting that Responsible Ohio’s information campaign appears to be working,”said Anthony Vander Horst, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Sociology.
Business groups, children’s hospitals opposed
Although Issue 3 opponents expect to be heavily outspent, a fierce public relations campaign is being mounted using press conferences and every other known bully pulpit. Last week, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine held press conferences around the state, including in Dayton, where he warned that children will inadvertently chew on marijuana-laced gummy bears and other “candy” if pot is made legal in Ohio.
DeWine said in a recent trip to Colorado officials and citizens told him “don’t make the same mistake we did.”
A long list of groups are opposing Issue 3, including children’s hospitals, business groups like the Ohio Bankers League and farm organizations like the Ohio Farm Bureau. Among the arguments: That it could force employers to let workers with medical marijuana cards use pot at work. Opponents have also argued that marijuana would still be prohibited under federal law, causing pot businesses to operate largely with cash, which could invite criminal activity. And some say law enforcement will have a difficult time policing roadways that include drivers stoned on weed.
The ACLU of Ohio, however, supports Issue 3 as a means to reform drug laws and give rights to adults. ResponsibleOhio has advocated on behalf of people of all ages, saying the old and sick will get the medicine they need, the young will avoid the arm of “failed marijuana laws” and all will benefit from the tax money generated through the licensing system.
For their part, voters seem to be all over the map.
“I am adamantly opposed to it, mainly because of the more or less monopoly that it creates,” said Tom Bick, an engineer who lives near Troy. “The constitution of Ohio is not meant to make men and women millionaires and billionaires. It’s supposed to create a structure by which we live.
“I grew up in a rural farm type county. Why shouldn’t they be able to grow it? Why can’t I have a big patch of it in my backyard? That’s what we’re all about — free enterprise.”
Others don’t see the monopoly issue.
“That is such crap,” said Rob Ryan, a retired aerospace engineer in Blue Ash and former president of Ohio NORML, a legal weed advocacy group. “It is just a pejorative piece of propaganda by people who don’t want it to happen.”
Ryan sees Issue 3 as the long awaited path to bringing medical marijuana to Ohioans. “With full legalization of marijuana, cannabis, whatever you want to call it, the full therapeutic benefits will be researched and documented and made available to people,” he said.
‘I am not a monopoly’
Issue 3 backers are spending millions of dollars to convince Ohio voters that it is not a monopoly. A glossy mailer shows Millennials holding up signs that say “I am not a monopoly” just above the words: “Vote No on 2. Vote Yes on 3 on Tues., Nov. 3.”
On the flip side it says: “Yes on Issue 3 starts with 10 competing and regulated grows, and if those 10 don’t meet the needs of the state or consumers, the state adds licensing until the demand is met. That’s not a monopoly, that’s a regulated industry.”
The amendment language spells out that the governor must appoint the seven-member Ohio Marijuana Control Commission within 40 days of Issue 3 passing and the commission must hold its initial meeting within 45 days of Issue 3 passing.
In 2019, if the 10 sites aren’t producing enough marijuana to meet consumer demands demonstrated in the previous year and the 10 sites fail to demonstrate that they’ll be able to meet demand in the upcoming year, the commission has the option to issue a single new license, according to the amendment language. There is nothing forcing the state to add more licensees.
ResponsibleOhio estimates the 10 sites will eventually produce 538,000 pounds per year, which amounts to about one ounce for each Ohio adult age 21 or older. An ounce is enough to roll about 50 joints. The legal marijuana industry is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion a year in sales.
In a press release last week, a group of Issue 3 opponents denounced an ad by ResponsibleOhio claiming its amendment doesn’t create a monopoly.
“ResponsibleOhio and its supporters aren’t fooling anyone when they claim that Issue 3 is more than a self-serving monopoly designed to bring in a financial windfall for its investors,” said Curt Steiner, campaign director for Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies. “Ohio voters aren’t buying it, and this latest ad proves it.”
Steiner’s group also took aim at the Kent State poll, saying it was done “on the cheap” and doesn’t reflect the people who will to vote.
“Totally misses the actual demos of the 2015 electorate,” Steiner said.
Debating the future
If voters reject Issue 3, it is up for debate on when the marijuana question will be up for another statewide vote. The ACLU of Ohio said it was endorsing Issue 3 to reform unfair drug laws.
“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,” said ACLU of Ohio Executive Director Christine Link in a written statement.
But Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national legalization advocacy group, said he isn’t so sure that a failure for Issue 3 would chill weed legalization efforts in Ohio for decades. He noted that he ran Colorado’s unsuccessful legalization initiative in 2006, which received 41 percent of the vote and kick started a statewide conversation. Six years later, Colorado voters approved legalization.
“The issue in Ohio is fostering a very important public dialog that will build public support for future years,” Tvert said.
MORE COVERAGE ON THE MARIJUANA ISSUE