Debate rages over monopoly claim

Even some users upset over the limits placed on growing sites.

Ever since ResponsibleOhio began gathering signatures to put pot legalization on the November ballot, heated debates have surfaced on a number of issues, including whether legal weed will lead to more drugs in the workplace or kids will have greater access to marijuana.

ATTEND OUR MARIJUANA: OHIO DECIDES TOWN HALL FORUM WEDNESDAY NIGHT

But the biggest racket has been over whether Ohio should carve out a special place in its constitution for 10 legal grow sites that control the supply chain for the dispensaries that would operate throughout Ohio.

Even some admitted marijuana users are against the measure because it would put the entire commercial market in so few hands.

One of those users is Tasha Rountree of Dayton, who says the medical marijuana edibles she takes legally in Michigan, where she also lives, make her “feel like a human again.” But Rountree, 41, who would otherwise suffer from the side effects brought on by polycystic ovary syndrome anemia, plans to vote no on Issue 3.

Under Issue 3, she says, people like her will be shut out of the business side.

“Not everybody wants to be the big weed person,” said Rountree, a Meadowdale High School and Sinclair Community College graduate who wants to cultivate her own strains in search of a perfect remedy for her gastrointestinal pain and then sell any surplus on a small scale. “Give a smaller person the ability to have a decent living. They simply want to take care of a few people at a time.”

Ohio lawmakers were so incensed over the prospect of a constitutionally sanctioned drug market in the state, a proposal to negate the pot initiative with a competing ballot issue passed the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support.

That’s how Ohio ended up with two pot-inspired ballot issues: Issue 3, which would legalize marijuana for recreational and medicinal use; and Issue 2, which would make illegal initiatives that create constitutional monopolies.

Many experts believe if both issues pass, the outcome will ultimately be decided by the Ohio Supreme Court.

Even the ballot language itself is controversial. The Ballot Board Friday reworded four paragraphs on Issue 3 after the state’s highest court ruled they were misleading. The court, however, agreed to let stand the word “monopoly” in the heading describing the proposal, which was a defeat for ResponsibleOhio.

Two sides

Making marijuana legalization part of the state’s constitution is necessary, ResponsibleOhio officials argue, to ensure that the legislature doesn’t overturn the public vote.

Because of intense opposition to marijuana legalization in Columbus, the traditional avenues for groups wishing to propose or change a law are closed to pro-pot groups like ResponsibleOhio, said Ian James, the group’s executive director.

“The Statehouse has had the last 20 years to deal with marijuana legalization and they have refused to do so every step along the way,” he said. “The fact is medical marijuana has been introduced in the General Assembly since 1997 and had one hearing where it died while we have people suffering from chronic illness and we have voters that want to provide the assistance to our chronically ill family members. We have a solution that is found in the direct democracy process.”

Although 23 states and the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana and four states now allow recreational use, Ohio would be the first state to approve both uses in one fell swoop.

“Ohio is just jumping from point A to point Z all of a sudden,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “It could be enormously complicated if we decide to do that.”

The provision for 10 grow sites is unique among the marijuana states, but there is precedent in the Ohio constitution for just that type of stipulation. Another Issue 3 — this one on casino gambling — was approved by voters in 2009. It spelled out precisely where four new casinos would be sited — all on property owned or controlled by only two investor groups.

“That’s the most obvious and notable example of where our constitution already has the kind of provisions that Issue 2 objects to,” said Doug Berman, the Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law at Ohio State University.

James argues that the amendment doesn’t create a monopoly at all and that demand will ultimately determine the number of growing sites.

But others say it anoints special privileges on certain business groups that are almost impossible to undo because of the language in the amendment.

After the gaming industry gained a foothold in Ohio, the legislature should have erected a firewall for any future effort that would give a small group of investors a clear advantage in the marketplace, said Phil Parker, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

“(The legislature) probably should have reacted maybe several years ago about issues like this and didn’t,” Parker said. “So now are they just going to continue and let this go forth again industry, after industry, after industry? … I think that they woke up. Whether you call it a monopoly, an oligopoly or cartel, however you want to define that, they should not be given a clear advantage over the sales, marketing, direction, pricing of commodity products — any type of products.”

Rep. Michael Curtin, D-Marble Cliff, who co-sponsored the joint resolution culminating in Issue 2, said he and fellow legislators weren’t necessarily caught flatfooted. He serves on the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, which he said started “discussing abuse of the (constitutional) initiative” a full 18 months before anybody heard of ResponsibleOhio.

But the marijuana issue kicked the concerns into high gear.

“The principal is, here we have a group of deep-pocketed owner-investors trying to carve out a niche in our state constitution to create for themselves what their own prospectus estimates will be a $1 billion industry in the state – a $1 billion in sales industry that they will completely own,” Curtin said. “It’s outrageous.”

Berman said it is somewhat disingenuous to argue that deep-pocketed special interests don’t have a leg up in the usual course of how bills become laws in the legislative process.

“Whether it’s who hires lobbyists who talk to legislators, whether it’s who gives campaign contributions, whether it’s who draws districts certain ways, or who’s interested in certain kinds of industries within their districts,” Berman said. “The economic impact and who’s going to profit from the work of government is in many respects fundamental to everything government does.”

Berman also doesn’t characterize the ResponsibleOhio plan as a pure monopoly.

“Our sense of a monopoly is one exclusive company, and that’s not what this is at all,” he said. “It’s 10 designated grow sites. They will be controlled by different entities.”

Although the various investor groups are currently coordinating “because they all have a collective interest in having this passed,” Berman said the licensing of a limited number of participants is not radically different than how alcohol and tobacco are regulated in Ohio.

Those industries each have regulatory structures so dense that companies of a certain size are the “only ones who get to play in that universe,” he said.

Brice Keller, who has turned the dining room of his Jefferson Twp. home into a “Marijuana War Room,” is an Air Force veteran, former civilian policeman and undercover drug investigator who says he uses marijuana to treat PTSD.

But unlike Rountree, Keller is supporting the amendment because he said it may be the best and only chance for years to get marijuana legalized in Ohio.

The attorney, who works with ResponsibleOhio and is aligned with a national group called Green Fight, said, “I don’t see why there are groups that seem wanting to take a step backwards.”

Ballot power

The initiative process — Ohio is one of 18 states that allow for a constitutional initiative to be taken directly to voters — grew out of a 20th century Progressive Era push back against the elite and powerful political machines that controlled many urban cities across the U.S., said former Ohio Gov. Robert Taft, now a distinguished research associate at the University of Dayton.

Taft said the system in Ohio has made a “complete 180 flip on the purpose of direct democracy.”

“That was a time when we were controlled by so-called corrupt political bosses and special interests. It was an attempt to restore power to the people, which you can certainly applaud,” Taft said. “But now what’s happening is a small group of wealthy casino owners or wealthy investors in marijuana farms are hijacking direct democracy to establish an exclusive monopoly-like right for themselves in the Ohio Constitution.”

Taft said he “obviously” doesn’t share the views of his third cousin’s children — brothers Woody and Dudley Taft Jr. — who are investors in the proposed Butler County grow site.

James, who helped orchestrate the casino issue signature drive, chafes at the notion that Issue 3 strives to create a monopoly.

“It’s lazy to call the Ohio marijuana amendment a monopoly when in fact it can’t be a monopoly when any Ohioan over 21 can grow their own marijuana. That’s not a monopoly,” he said. “When the amendment stipulates there’s an initial 10 licenses and the state and demand for marijuana then establishes the ceiling of how many licenses will be awarded. There’s a floor of 10 but there is no ceiling established by the amendment. The ceiling is established by the state and the demand.”

Under the amendment’s language approved by the Ballot Board, one additional growth facility will be allowed in four years “only if existing facilities cannot meet consumer demand.”

James said what legislators are really concerned about is who controls the tax money off marijuana. Issue 3 calls for the revenue to go to flow to local governments, not the state.

“It’s about power and taxes and how money is going to be spent,” he said. “There are a limited few in this state who work in Columbus at the Statehouse who think that they know better how your money needs to be spent and they know better how we need to take care of the chronically ill.”

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