Ohioans reject Issue 3

Pro-pot backers say they will come back with a new plan.

In a major push back against big money interests, Ohio voters rejected an investor-backed proposal to legalize marijuana and approved a plan to inoculate the state constitution against future attempts to install business monopolies, according to unofficial results.

Issue 3 was defeated in a stunning landslide 65 percent to 35 percent with more than 87 percent of the precincts reporting.

Backers of Issue 3 threw more than $15 million into the campaign to legalize weed in the hopes that it would return them exclusive commercial growing rights in a multi-billion-dollar industry. Opponents operated on just a fraction of that budget but convinced Ohio voters that Issue 3 would corrupt the constitution, unjustly reward wealthy investors and harm children.

“The resounding defeat of Issue 3 clearly demonstrates voters understood it as an audacious attempt by a few investors to implant their business plan in the Ohio Constitution,” said state Rep. Mike Curtin, who is author of Ohio Politics Almanac and former editor of the Columbus Dispatch. “The unprecedented coalition that came together to oppose Issue 3 overcame a 12 to one money disadvantage.”

ResponsibleOhio Executive Director Ian James, the political mastermind behind Issue 3, vowed that he and his investors would come back with a new plan.

“We changed the dialog (on marijuana legalization,)” James told supporters and the press. “This was, folks, the first step toward legalization. We are not going away. We are not going away. What we have in prohibition of marijuana does not work.”

Jimmy Gould, who pulled together investors for Issue 3, agreed and said, “We will do everything we have to do, put up whatever money we need to put up, and we are committed to making this change.”

Meanwhile, state Issue 2, a constitutional amendment to block Issue 3 and to prevent future monopolies from going into the constitution, was passing with about 52 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed, according to early results. Issue 2 was sponsored by Curtin and put on the statewide ballot by the General Assembly.

Voter turnout was near the historical average of 38.5 percent for off-year elections.

Reporting of results across Ohio was delayed for 90 minutes after Hamilton County Judge Robert Ruehlman ordered the polls in that county to stay open until 9 p.m., an hour and a half past the normal 7:30 p.m. closing time. ResponsibleOhio went to court to push for extended voting time because of long delays caused by equipment and supply issues in Hamilton County.

Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Professor Daniel Tokaji, an expert in election law, said the Ohio Ballot Board crafted summary language that favored Issue 2 and hurt Issue 3.

“It’s no surprise that the marijuana initiative went up in smoke. Its opponents had the best advertising they could possibly ask for: They had their message on every ballot, read by every Ohio voter just before they voted. And what’s more, the ads were completely free,” Tokaji said in an email. “With such slanted ballot language, it was practically impossible for Issue 2 to fail or Issue 3 to prevail. No amount of money could have changed that result.”

Additionally, Husted, who campaigned against Issue 3, titled the issue: “Grants a monopoly for the commercial production and sale of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes.”

In many ways, the fight over Issues 2 and 3 was a battle between well-funded investors and the political establishment. ResponsibleOhio raised more than $25 million from its 10 investor groups — and spent $15.3 million on the campaign through mid-October. Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies raised $712,585 and spent $366,226 through mid-October but the No on 3 campaign pulled together a broad coalition of more than 100 business, public health, labor and education organizations. Husted, Auditor David Yost and Attorney General Mike DeWine were vocal opponents of Issue 3.

Ohio’s marijuana vote represented a number of firsts in the nation: first state to consider full legalization without first having a medical marijuana program in place; first to be bankrolled by business investors instead of drug policy reformers and grassroots activists; first to consider legalization in an off-year election when turnout is typically lower and more conservative; and the first to go up against a competing constitutional amendment designed to kill it off.

But Issue 3’s fatal flaw was that it called for granting commercial grow rights to just 10 investor groups. Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann called it in an essay published last week: “Unprecedented and profoundly problematic in creating a constitutionally mandated oligopoly.”

Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies, a campaign orchestrated by Republican strategist Curt Steiner, hammered home the monopoly structure, running a single TV ad that depicted backroom dealers exchanging piles of cash and images of marijuana-infused candy.

ResponsibleOhio shifted gears several times in the message it sent to voters.

Initially branded as ResponsibleOhio, the campaign became Yes on 3 once the ballot issue was assigned a number and then promoted as ‘No on 2, Yes on 3.’ James and his supporters were forced to play defense and spend money on TV ads and mailers that proclaimed that Issue 3 is not a monopoly. Late in the campaign, ResponsibleOhio focused primarily on the medical marijuana aspects, which voters support in large numbers, and ran ads that implied government politicians were trying to trick voters and take away their rights with Issue 2.

ResponsibleOhio failed to get the backing of national marijuana legalization groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance. It received a half-hearted endorsement from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which urged a yes vote but noted that it didn’t like that it would limit commercial grows to parcels controlled by the 10 investor groups.

The defeat of legal pot on Tuesday means Ohio isn’t likely to see another marijuana question the statewide ballot for years, said Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Professor Doug Berman, who teaches a course on marijuana law and policy.

But Wright State University Assistant Professor of Political Science Lee Hannah said the Ohio General Assembly could move forward on a narrowly tailored medical marijuana program, similar to what was adopted in Georgia this year.

“That would cut off some of the more sympathetic arguments for marijuana legalization,” Hannah said.

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