Pot debate flares in Ohio

Governor, law enforcement in opposition to marijuana legalization plan.

If voters approve ResponsibleOhio’s ballot issue in November, Ohio could become the first state in the country to go from a complete ban to full legalization, skipping the typical step of first authorizing medical marijuana. Efforts are underway to do the same in Missouri.

ResponsibleOhio Executive Director Ian James said it is disingenuous to campaign for medical marijuana if the ultimate goal is full legalization. “It’s a fig leaf approach. It’s not honest,” he said. “It is far better for Ohio voters to understand that you can have medicinal use and personal use at the same time and that they have significant and far-reaching benefits.”

Chris Lindsey of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national non-profit that advocates for liberalizing cannabis laws, said ResponsibleOhio’s plan is unusual in several other ways. For example:

  • The group is pushing a ballot issue in an off election year, rather than during a presidential election when voter turnout is highest;
  • The proposal specifies that the marijuana can be grown only in 10 sites, and the owners of those sites would include backers of the amendment; and

     

     

  • Campaign organizers are coming from the business world, not the marijuana grassroots world.

“This is the first time we’ve ever seen folks who are business interests driving this,” Lindsey said.

James, the CEO of Columbus-based political consulting firm The Strategy Network, said the time is now for legal pot in Ohio.

“The public is really ahead of the politicians on this,” said James, whose company has worked on high-profile statewide issues such as gay marriage and casinos. “It is very clear from our polling that Ohio voters know that prohibition has failed. They’re tired of wasting an estimated $120 million a year to enforce a failed prohibition. They’re tired of seeing people who are non-violent offenders being locked up. And Ohio voters believe that if we regulate properly and we tax heavily and we provide the opportunities of employment for Ohioans to own and operate these retail stores and manufacturing, then they’re willing to reform Ohio’s marijuana laws.”

James acknowledged that the Ohio of 1o years ago wouldn’t have gone for this. But, he said, “clearly attitudes have changed.”

So far, 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and four states — Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon — have legalized both medical and personal use, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Nationwide, the pot industry is estimated to be worth $10 billion to $100 billion and in Ohio analysts believe it is between $1 billion and $4 billion.

Pot gains favor

Legalizing pot, particularly for medical reasons, is gaining favor among voters. A poll by Quinnipiac University released in February 2014 found that 87 percent of Ohio voters support allowing adults to use marijuana if it’s prescribed by their doctors and 51 percent support adults possessing small amounts of pot for personal use.

The same poll found that 45 percent of Ohio voters think legalizing marijuana was bad for Colorado’s national image, 83 percent say pot is less or equally dangerous as alcohol and 51 percent don’t believe marijuana leads to other drug use.

ResponsibleOhio plans to submit ballot language this week or the following week that will detail its campaign to legalize cultivation, distribution and sales of cannabis to Ohioans ages 21 and older.

But already the group is seeing opposition from political powerhouses. Gov. John Kasich opposes legalizing marijuana on his watch; the Drug Free Action Alliance calls the proposal a scheme to create a drug cartel; and Fraternal Order of Police President Jay McDonald said, “We are going to examine it. I’ll tell you, the marijuana crowd will have a big hurdle to clear to get us to stay neutral or support it.”

Specific details about the group’s plans have also met resistance, including a provision limiting growing to 10 sites. If that doesn’t meet the demand after four years, a seven member Marijuana Control Commission may add a single license per year.

That restriction might not sit well with the Ohio Farm Bureau. The group has yet to take a position, but spokesman Joe Cornely said the bureau generally favors a free market and increasing opportunities for all farmers.

Grassroots organizers who have long toiled on the pot legalization question also do not welcome ResponsibleOhio.

“Don’t sign it. Don’t fund it. Don’t vote for it,” said Michael Revercomb, of Ohioans to End Prohibition, which is working on a different pot issue that he hopes to place on the November 2016 ballot.

‘We will spend whatever it takes to win’

Ohio Rights Group, a campaign for legalizing medical marijuana in Ohio, has collected 150,000 of the 305,600 required signatures to place its issue on the November 2015 ballot. Ohio Rights Group incoming president Carlis McDermet and Revercomb both said ResponsibleOhio’s structure will give a monopoly to a handful of growers.

None of the groups in Ohio have the backing of the Marijuana Policy Project, which has backed or led seven successful statewide pot ballot issues across the country. MPP only runs ballot questions in presidential election years and next year is targeting Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada.

Lindsey of the MPP said ResponsibleOhio seems to have the financial backing and political organization needed to bring an issue to Oho’s ballot.

“My guess would be that they’re not overly concerned with the other groups because it is such a high bar. It is a very difficult thing to get on the ballot,” he said. “You have to be very well funded and very well organized.”

James said they are just that.

“We will spend whatever it takes to win,” he said.

John Burke, commander of the Warren County Drug Task Force, said “I truly think if the residents of Ohio hear the facts and know the truth, they’ll soundly defeat this. But that’s going to be the issue — us being able to get out the other side of the story.”

In November 2012, 55 percent of Colorado voters said yes to legalizing adult use of recreational marijuana, despite political opposition from the governor, attorney general and law enforcement. Colorado, which began pot sales Jan. 1, 2014, rolled out a system for growing, tracking, testing and selling marijuana to adults.

A report by the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institute gave Colorado high marks for a smooth rollout but said the system is not without its problems. It is mostly a cash business — since federal law still prohibits marijuana sales, credit cards and electronic banking can’t be used. There are concerns over the potency and serving sizes of edible marijuana products. And there is no state oversight of the product safety and quality of home grow pot.

Shops with names like Starbuds, The Happy Camper Cannabis Co. and Rocky Mountain High have sprung up across the state. And Colorado has collected $44 million in tax revenues in the first 11 months of the program.

James said the same could happen in Ohio.

“Let’s not kid ourselves. There are billions of dollars of marijuana sold in Ohio and there is no tax benefit to it currently,” James said. “If we legalize it, regulate it and test it and tax it, Ohio will benefit from it.”

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