Big money feeds pot signature effort

ResponsibleOhio faces Wednesday ballot deadline.

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“Ohioans want legalization. They want it to be regulated, they want it to be tested, they want it to be taxed. And when we have that system in place, we’ll do it the right way and ResponsibleOhio is the right way to go.”

Ian James, ResponsibleOhio executive director

“This marijuana issue is a bad deal the way it is structured, regardless of whether you’re for or against legalization of marijuana.”

State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miami Twp.

Political strategist Ian James’ sprawling Edwardian mansion near downtown Columbus is “Marijuana Central” where campaign workers hunch over piles of petitions, high-speed scanners hum and bar code readers beep.

Petitions are stacked floor to ceiling in banker boxes. A computer server archives petition images and voter metrics for the entire operation.

“Every morning those petition boxes are opened up. They’re sorted out. You hear the beeping — they’ve all got a little bar code on them,” said James, explaining his highly-evolved tracking and cataloging system.

James is the executive director of ResponsibleOhio, the campaign to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes by amending the state constitution and naming 10 specific grow sites. Backers have already raised $20 million for the campaign and another $20 million for land acquisition and they’re working to pull together another $100 to $300 million to finance the marijuana growing, manufacturing and retailing businesses, James said.

ResponsibleOhio is pushing the most dramatic, sweeping change to drug policy that Ohio has ever seen. If ResponsibleOhio wins, Ohio will be the first state nationwide to go from a full prohibition to full legalization, without taking the intermediate step of setting up a medical marijuana program first. Twenty-three states allow for medical marijuana and four of them plus the District of Columbia allow for recreational use as well.

James and his team are facing a hard deadline — 4 p.m. Wednesday July 1 — to submit 305,591 valid voter signatures to the Ohio Secretary of State to make the statewide ballot in November. He wants to submit about 700,000 — enough of a cushion to account for duplicates or invalid signatures.

The ResponsibleOhio plan calls for: establishing 10 growing sites controlled by investor groups that are bankrolling the campaign; setting up a governor-appointed Marijuana Control Commission to regulate and oversee the industry; and allowing licensing of pot product manufacturers, medical dispensaries, retail stores and quality and safety testing facilities.

ResponsibleOhio would also license adults 21 or older who want to grow up to four flowering plants at home. Tax revenues would be shared among cities, counties and a fund for research, addiction treatment and control commission operations.

James said it’s silly to assume that marijuana will never be legal in Ohio, even as other states approve it.

“That’s not going to happen. Ohioans want legalization. They want it to be regulated, they want it to be tested, they want it to be taxed. And when we have that system in place, we’ll do it the right way and ResponsibleOhio is the right way to go,” he said.

Buzz saw of opposition

Polls show a majority of Americans and Ohioans support allowing adults to possess small amounts of marijuana while the vast majority support allowing medical marijuana.

But the idea has run into a buzz saw of opposition among the Ohio political establishment and among some marijuana advocates who dislike ResponsibleOhio’s proposed structure.

Lawmakers in Columbus are rushing to put a competing, conflicting constitutional amendment on the November ballot that could — if both amendments pass — block ResponsibleOhio’s plan from taking effect. Legal experts predict that if both pass, litigation is certain.

“Its vague and ambiguous language is an invitation to judicial lawmaking and would do more harm than good if adopted,” warned Ohio State University Law Professor Dan Tokaji in written testimony. Tokaji is an expert in constitutional and elections law.

The General Assembly proposal calls for setting up a two-tiered process for commercial interests to amend the Ohio Constitution so that it would be more difficult for business interests to use the constitution to give themselves a monopoly on an industry, such as casino gambling or growing marijuana.

“This marijuana issue is a bad deal the way it is structured, regardless of whether you’re for or against legalization of marijuana,” said state Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miami Twp.

If both pass, there are two arguments for why the General Assembly’s amendment would trump ResponsibleOhio’s amendment: first, the lawmakers’ plan says so; second, the Secretary of State says Legislative initiative amendments take effect immediately while citizen-initiated ones are delayed FOR 30 days.

Anti-drug groups also oppose the overall question of marijuana legalization and are counting on Ohio voters to just say no.

“I think there is a very strong and good chance that it won’t (pass), especially if people…really peel away the layers of complexity to this issue and take a look at what is at stake for Ohio. When people understand that, I think people will say no,” said Marcie Seidel, director of the Drug Free Action Alliance.

Impressive team

The anti-drug crowd has yet to unveil an organized opposition campaign but it could end up being a David and Goliath match-up.

James, who has three decades of political experience, put together an impressive team: former Akron Beacon Journal Statehouse reporter Dennis Willard is running the public relations machine; Republican lobbyist Neil Clark is on board; Cincinnati-based attorney Chris Stock, who worked for Republican Jim Petro, drafted the amendment; Columbus-based elections law expert Don McTigue is on the legal team; and Cincinnati-based sports agent and private equity investor Jimmy Gould is leading the charge on lining up investors.

James is the mastermind behind the plan. Roughly 18 months ago, he said he watched marijuana policy change rapidly in other states and saw the poll numbers moving. He realized that the grassroots supporters of legal weed, who James calls the “weed wonks,” didn’t have the organization and funding to collect, track and catalog more than half a million voter signatures.

And on top of that, the Ohio General Assembly had no interest in the topic whatsoever, he said.

James’ company will be paid millions of dollars to run the petition gathering and say yes campaign.

State Rep. Mike Curtin, D-Marble Cliff, the former editor of The Columbus Dispatch, is the leading the charge to put the competing constitutional amendment on the ballot in November. Without naming names, Curtin accused those in the ballot initiative industry of trying hijack the Ohio Constitution and forever etch monopolies into the state’s founding document.

“The People’s Constitution should never, ever be a shopping center for market opportunities. It is no exaggeration to call this a grave threat to our state constitution,” Curtin said.

James countered that state lawmakers have added so many requirements — manifests, sequential numbering, petition circulator signatures, digital scanning and more — to the initiative petition process that it’s virtually impossible for any group without substantial financial backing to get an issue on the ballot.

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