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The Most Unusual Marijuana Battle in America

Behind the push to legalize pot in Ohio.
(Photo: Martin Alonso/Flickr)

(Photo: Martin Alonso/Flickr)

Sometime in the mid-'90s, my elementary school-aged daughter began receiving weekly DARE lectures from local cops in Fort Worth, Texas. One day, she came home looking especially perplexed. The police officer, she told me, had informed her class that their first experience with pot would likely be at the hands of gang members. And some of those gang members, he warned, might force her to smoke weed with a knife to her throat. Is this really how it starts, she asked?

No, I assured her, that is not how it tends to start. But, I continued, pot also isn't that great; it affects people differently, and has been known to make some act especially stupid. Certainly, I said, it's not the divine awakening the ganja crowd often professes it to be in their drum circles. Marijuana is not as good as the stoners say, and not as bad as the cops claim. We watched the film Dazed and Confused that night to prove my point.

That minor incident has been crossing my mind recently, as Ohio—where I now live—gets ready to vote on legalizing marijuana in a few weeks. This would make medical and recreational pot use legal in Ohio, similar to other measures recently passed in Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington. The national marijuana reform movement is watching this election closely because this is blue-collar Ohio, much more urban and populated than those other states, certainly not full of rock climbers and ski bums and Pacific Northwest hipsters. Above all, it's a state that can serve as a political barometer for the larger national viewpoint.

"Setting up an oligopoly on an agricultural product is un-American."

I'm hearing the usual repertoire from both sides. From the left, that medical marijuana will cure most every disease known to man and will help with spiritual enlightenment. And from the right, that smoking a legal doobie will turn good law-abiding churchgoers into heroin addicts and axe murderers.

But when you dig a little deeper into this election, what is happening in Ohio this fall is not the usual clichéd rhetoric. Most of the pro-pot crowd, both statewide and nationally, are not too pleased with how the constitutional amendment being voted upon is worded, how it limits who is able to grow the marijuana—and they have subsequently declined public support on the issue. Meanwhile, the group that gathered the signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, calling themselves ResponsibleOhio, is targeting older voters and libertarians with a very pointed message: Government shouldn't be involved in their medical choices, and legal pot will be a real economic plus for taxpayers.

To put more simply, the group advocating for legal weed in a Midwest state is acting more Republican than some like. And the Republicans aren't thrilled with that fact.


This is the first statewide marijuana legalization vote in the United States that will have both the recreational and medical components combined into one vote. (Colorado, for example, legalized medical marijuana in 2000, then passed legalization for recreational use in 2012.) In this election, though, the recreational side of the debate has rarely been mentioned in the advertising campaign supporting the affirmative vote. The ads focus on a girl whose seizures could be cut down through marijuana treatment, a group of older women discussing the benefits of marijuana as an arthritis painkiller, and an ex-cop who says the drug war on marijuana is a waste of time and money for police departments.

Part of the reason the medical marijuana aspect of the amendment is pushed so heavily is that 90 percent of Ohioans are in favor of doctors being able to prescribe marijuana for medicinal use, while just 53 percent are on board with legal recreational use, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.

That campaign message alone isn't unusual compared to other states. What's causing the big debate in Ohio is not so much whether pot should be grown and sold legally, but rather who should be able to sell it. The amendment calls for 10 investor groups as those who will exclusively grow weed, on 10 separate farms in the state.

This makes for an odd alliance of opposition groups. The dreadlocked and granola crowd on the far left thinks growing weed on a farm should be open to just about anyone; the far right thinks limousine liberals are being allowed to make a government-approved cash grab. One Ohio Republican joked to me that "they're using our strategy of giving presents to their rich friends," and that hearing liberals use family values, less government, and rewards for business insiders to win an election is "not what we are used to hearing from them."

ResponsibleOhio, the group backing the Ohio marijuana legalization initiative, created Buddie, the cape-wearing superhero whose head is a marijuana bud. (Photo: ResponsibleOhio)

ResponsibleOhio, the group backing the Ohio marijuana legalization initiative, created Buddie, the cape-wearing superhero whose head is a marijuana bud. (Photo: ResponsibleOhio)

Many critics charge that the amendment's language is too vague and, should it pass, would be difficult for the legislature to change if needed (as changes in the Constitution must have voter approval). But this much is known: There will be about 1,100 retail stores licensed, and each household will be able to grow four plants for personal use if they purchase a $50 license. The promoters of this pro-pot legislation predict about $300 to $400 million in tax revenue each year, mostly going to local governments. ("Fix Pot Holes With Pot Money" is one of their slogans.)

When it became apparent that the legal pot initiative would make it to the ballot, the Ohio Legislature decided to counter by putting its own constitutional amendment on the ballot. Theirs, if passed, would cancel out any amendments that favor "monopolies" or "oligopolies." If both pass, the entire Ohio pot legalization vote might be thrown to the Ohio Supreme Court.

If all this seems confusing, well, it is. Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, tells me "the people who put [the amendment to legalize pot] on the [Ohio] ballot are scumbags, but it looks like we'll have to support the scumbags if we want marijuana to be legal in Ohio." Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based advocacy group for legal marijuana, adds that "setting up an oligopoly on an agricultural product is un-American, and putting that in a state Constitution is fundamentally problematic for us."

Similarly, Sri Kavuru, president of Ohioans to End Prohibition, which plans to try to put its legalization initiative on the Ohio ballot in 2016, told Vice in August:

[ResponsibleOhio is] focused solely on the money, and when that motivation drives public policy, you start seeing things like artificially high prices, and tight regulations that are passed under the guise of public safety but don't really have anything to do with protecting the public.

But when you talk to the people who crafted this ballot initiative, you quickly realize that, while the issue of money is indeed important, it's significant in the forefront, and not so much on the backend. They repeatedly insist that there are much safer investments, and even if the issue does pass, the marijuana business in Ohio won't be a huge cash cow (even though it is the seventh most populated state). The key point is this: People who put up big cash to fund the legal pot campaign want some sort of payoff if they are successful.

"When you are trying to pass an issue that the government has worked so hard against for so many years, you can't get it passed unless you have the resources to fight that," says ResponsibleOhio Executive Director Ian James. "The public is for this, and the elected officials are not listening, so we have decided to do this on our own."

A longtime Ohio political operative (usually on more liberal issues like organized labor policy), James got the idea for private investor funding for the legalized pot campaign after successfully running the Ohio legalized gambling ballot measure in 2009. Voters not only approved casino gambling in Ohio, but the measure also designated how many casinos would be permitted (four), and who would own them (two companies called Hollywood and Horseshoe). James realized that the key to getting casino gambling passed in Ohio was limiting the number of companies who could own them, and then getting those companies to fund the pre-election campaign advertising.

The casinos are now operating in four Ohio cities (Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo, and Cincinnati), and Hollywood and Horseshoe are making big money in a previously untapped gaming market.

So James approached some investors and came up with a plan similar to the gambling vote: Ten investor groups would have to put up at least $2 million each for campaign spending, and an approximate $40 million each if the initiative passed to buy the acreage and necessary equipment to fund the operation. The investor groups are open to how many investors each one wants to include; some have just a few, some have a few dozen.

"The public is for this, and the elected officials are not listening, so we have decided to do this on our own."

Most of the investors are well-heeled venture capitalist types who see the initiative as an opportunity to be at the forefront of social change, while still making money in the process. But some have some name recognition: retired basketball star Oscar Robertson, boy band singer and reality television participant Nick Lachey, New York fashion designer Nanette Lapore, and musician Dudley Taft Jr. (a descendant of President William Howard Taft).

James, who has been sober from alcohol and drugs for 23 years, says the decision to place the issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment came about after years of frustration due to a lack of action in the state legislature on the issue of medical marijuana. "For the past 19 years, bills have come before the Ohio Legislature that might have made medical marijuana available to the people that need, it, but they have always died in committee," he says. "We decided we cannot wait for the legislature to do the will of the people. We decided to do it ourselves."

And his answer to those who say the amendment favors a few rich by limiting the number of pot growing farms to 10? "Perfection is the enemy of the good."

So far, few formal oppositions have arisen to the legalized pot initiative, meaning there are no counter TV ad campaigns as of yet. Most newspapers, chambers of commerce, and hospitals have come out against the legal amendment, but the most recent polls show that the Ohio marijuana initiative is winning, albeit by a close margin (56 percent are in favor).

The counter amendment put on the ballot by the legislature, which would ban monopoly designations to be written into the Constitution, is also up by an equally slim margin. Some think that both will pass because, while voters want legal marijuana reform (the latest poll has 57 percent voting "yes" on both), they don't want it coming like this. (In an equally crazy quirk, some interpret the Ohio Constitution on this matter as saying that if both pass, the one that has the most votes trumps the other one.)

This vote will no doubt have much import in the national debate to end marijuana prohibition. Medical or recreational marijuana initiatives are pretty far along in about 15 states. If this can pass in Ohio, many theorize, it can pass in most any state. More importantly, like gay marriage, many conservative Republicans might see fighting marijuana legalization as a lost cause in the long run if Ohio goes legal.

"I think if this passes in Ohio this year, and doesn't just squeak by, it will send a profound signal to politicians around the country that this just isn't a regional libertarian issue or just something that old hippies in certain states care about," says Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman, who blogs about marijuana reform.

"Republicans in particular are going to find their voter base is less and less against marijuana prohibition, and they will be more likely to start emphasizing the economic upside of legalization," Berman says, adding that "marijuana reform is becoming more and more of a middle ground issue, and less and less of an extreme issue where some that think [pot use] can cure every medical malady while others think it leads to all sorts of other drug addictions. People are starting to see that being illegal is the lesser of two evils."

Or, as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws' Stroup points out, this may be an election where many Ohioans hold their nose and vote for what they perceive as policies favoring "scumbags." After all, practical politics means that sometimes you must do things you're not thrilled about in order to win. Chanting in the drum circle only takes you so far.