Ohio cannabis ballot initiative might defeat itself

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Leland Rucker | Boulder Weekly

The state of Ohio announced recently that enough voters had been certified to put Marijuana Legalization Initiative Issue 3 on the 2015 ballot. If passed, it would allow citizens over 21 to buy recreational and medical marijuana much as we do here.

Proposed by a group called ResponsibleOhio, it is fairly consistent with legalization measures in other states. Ohio currently does not allow medical marijuana, so the state would be the first to create medical and recreational rules and regulations simultaneously. Medical marijuana facilities would be not-for-profit, and more than 1,000 outlets will sell retail marijuana around the state. Backers tout $120 million in law-enforcement savings and a ton of revenue for state and local municipalities. If it passes, the group plans a “Fresh Start Act” on the 2016 ballot that would end convictions for cannabis offenders in prison for criminal acts that would now be legal.

Then there’s the rub. The measure would also “endow exclusive rights for commercial marijuana growth, cultivation and extraction to self-designated landowners who own 10 predetermined parcels of land in Butler, Clermont, Franklin, Hamilton, Licking, Lorain, Lucas, Delaware, Stark, and Summit counties.”

That’s not as completely crazy as it sounds at first, but it’s close. Illinois, for instance, approved seven medical cultivation sites, and New York and Florida five each. Regulation, supporters say, would be a lot easier with just 10 growers than it is in Colorado, which has several hundred around the state.

That’s a good argument. But still, how did 10 growers “self-designate” themselves into an oligopoly, a market legally dominated by a small number of people? It turns out that ResponsibleOhio’s $20 million dollar campaign is funded by investment groups that own the specific parcels of land in the counties listed in the proposal.

Supporters claim that it’s expensive to run a campaign, the 10 groups are spending $42 million to purchase and develop the sites and admit that yes, the growers will make lots of money from their investment. (ResponsibleOhio added “limited” home growing in response to early criticism.)

A lot of marijuana supporters in the state choked on the monopoly provision. Ohioans to End Prohibition, for instance, which plans its own legalization measure on the 2016 ballot, is actively fighting the 2015 initiative with everything it has.

National groups have been tepid in their support. Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, which was not involved in its creation, says MPP backs the measure to the extent that it would end the current failed policy and allow medical patients access.

The wording of the initiative’s summary was finalized by the state’s Ballot Board, which has three Republicans, all against legalization, and two Democrats.

The final phrasing concentrates on the most controversial features, especially the monopoly provision. ResponsibleOhio responded by filing a lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court claiming that the phrase “grants a monopoly for the commercial production and sale of marijuana” would “mislead, deceive or defraud” voters. But the measure will create the monopoly, a fact that ResponsibleOhio’s videos and promotional materials downplay.

To add to the confusion for voters, the Ohio state legislature added its own amendment, the Initiated Monopolies Amendment Issue 2, to the same ballot that would nullify an amendment that would create a monopoly or give economic advantage to a few people. If passed, it could, in effect, invalidate the marijuana initiative.

Legal analysts differ as to what might happen if both initiatives pass. Some speculate the one that gets the most votes takes precedent. Others have noted that legislative measures take effect immediately, but citizen initiatives don’t become law for three months, which means the anti-monopoly measure could displace the marijuana one.

This puts Ohio voters and legalization supporters in a tough spot. What if you support legalization but are against the monopoly concept or that the measure writes tax rates into the constitution? Do you vote for both, hoping that the marijuana measure will get more votes? Or just for the marijuana measure, while holding your nose at the idea of monopolized growers?

This is the first time a state legalization effort doesn’t have universal support of cannabis users, and Tvert makes a good point about how legalizing marijuana state-by-state isn’t going to satisfy everybody.

“Ultimately, marijuana laws are going to vary from state to state just like alcohol laws vary from state to state, and the people in each state decide what those laws should be,” he says. “So it’s going to be up to Ohio voters to decide whether the proposed system is the best step forward for Ohio right now.”

You can hear Leland discuss his most recent column and Colorado cannabis issues each Thursday morning on KGNU. http://news.kgnu.org/weed