Ohio’s Secretary of State announced Wednesday that ResponsibleOhio’s ballot measure to legalize recreational and medical cannabis will have a spot on the November general election ballot. A second ballot measure designed to undermine the group’s effort will be on the November ballot as well, setting up a possible legal showdown between ResponsibleOhio and lawmakers who say the group is trying to enshrine a cannabis oligopoly in the state constitution.
To be certain, opponents of ResponsibleOhio are correct to cry foul over the group’s tactics and motives. ResponsibleOhio is indisputably a group of private investors who stand to make loads of money if their amendment to Ohio’s constitution is passed. That is because the law, as the group drafted it, would require all commercial and medical cannabis in Ohio to be grown on just 10 plots of land—all of them owned or optioned by ResponsibleOhio investors. The group’s stakeholders include a former boy-band member, current and ex-professional athletes, a fashion designer and two descendants of a former U.S. president.
By spending $2.5 million, ResponsibleOhio managed to gather 320,267 signatures, more than enough to land a spot on the November ballot. The group plans to follow up the roughly $8 per signature it has already spent with an additional $20 million capital investment to make sure its cannabis plan becomes the law of the land for Ohio’s 11.6 million residents.
ResponsibleOhio cites the many benefits to legalization, including saving money on law enforcement efforts against cannabis while crippling the black market and preventing the imprisonment of cannabis users. Only hardline anti-cannabis advocates would dispute such benefits are likely to happen if the law is passed. Opponents of the plan, however, who include cannabis advocates as well as lawmakers, are alarmed that the new cannabis economy would be under the thumb of the owners of the 10 designated grow sites. They say the legalization effort being pushed by ResponsibleOhio is simply a ploy to establish an oligopoly with a constitutional right to control cannabis in Ohio.
To prevent that from happening, lawmakers have added their own measure to the November ballot. The proposed statute would prohibit language in the state constitution that grants “monopoly, oligopoly or cartel” powers to any group or individual, which could be a deathblow to ResponsibleOhio’s efforts. This response from lawmakers suggests that intentions are not to block legalization in general, but to prevent this measure specifically. It is unclear whether ResponsibleOhio will continue to push for cannabis law reform if the language that designates their landholdings as the sole growing spaces in Ohio were to be deemed unconstitutional.
A second, albeit seemingly less serious threat to ResponsibleOhio is coming from cannabis advocates. John Pardee, president of Ohio Rights Group, says of the opposition to ResponsibleOhio among cannabis proponents,
“It’s a battle for the heart and soul of this new economy. The wealthy are starting to see this new market and step on it right out of the crib.”
Pardee’s organization had planned to launch a campaign to put a legalization measure on the 2016 ballot, but is now gathering signatures for the 2015 ballot in an attempt to provide voters with an alternative future for cannabis business in the state.
In the event the ResponsibleOhio measure is the only pro-cannabis amendment on the November ballot, voters will have to decide whether they are willing to swallow the bitter pill of oligopoly in the cannabis market in order to finally have access to legal marijuana. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORMAL), the best known of all cannabis advocacy groups in the U.S., has said it is willing to support ResponsibleOhio if its plan turns out to be the only legalization option on the ballot in the strategically important state. NORML’s support will not be overly enthusiastic, however, as it recognizes that longtime cannabis supporters will be pushed aside by profiteers.
“Those people … have invested their lives and taken great risks to get us to where we are today. We would like the market to be open to small- and mid-sized growers, not just the big guys,”
Keith Stroup, an attorney for NORML, said of allies who will be squeezed out of the market by ResponsibleOhio.