Sorting Through the Marijuana Mess in Ohio

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel July 27, 2015

    If anyone would have suggested a year ago that Ohio might be on the verge of legalizing marijuana in 2015, I would have laughed at the idea.

    First, Ohio is a conservative Midwestern state that is seldom, if ever, on the cutting edge on social issues. And second, 2015 is an off-year election, with no statewide or federal elections, meaning the voter turn-out would be lower and the likely voters would be older and less supportive than would be the case if the proposal were on the ballot in 2016, a presidential election year when younger voters turn out in far higher numbers.

    But it turns out that Ohio voters may well be voting on marijuana legalization this November. And the circumstances surrounding this development raise new issues that legalization activists are struggling to deal with. The proposed constitutional amendment, called the Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative, sponsored by a group calling itself Responsible Ohio, would legalize both the medical and the recreational use of marijuana.

    We have a scarcity of polling data that would indicate whether the voters in Ohio currently support marijuana legalization. A Quinnipiac University poll taken in 2014 found strong support for medical marijuana, and an almost even split (51 percent support) over full legalization. One can presume the sponsors of this initiative must have done their own private polling, but if so, they have not shared the results.

    Investor Driven Voter Initiatives

    But what is unique about this effort is that it is being funded by a few rich private investors who, under the terms of the proposed initiative, would then own the 10 specific cultivation centers around the state authorized to cultivate marijuana commercially. In other words, those investors who provide the funding to gather the required number of signatures, and to run a professional statewide campaign, would be richly rewarded for their investment, assuming the initiative is approved by a majority of the voters.

    Individuals would be permitted to cultivate up to four marijuana plants privately, and retail dispensary licenses would be open for all to apply for licenses, but the commercial cultivation would be limited to what the Rand Corporation has described as a “structured oligopoly.”

    As might be expected, this proposal, which would enshrine this special privilege for these investors in the state constitution, has met with some cries of outrage from some in the Buckeye state, both legalization activists and the state legislature.

    Some activists have raised objections to the proposal because it would not permit average Ohioans to compete for the commercial cultivation licenses, although ordinary citizens would be entitled to apply for licenses for the more than 1,000 retail dispensaries that would be authorized, claiming it is undemocratic. Some opponents have even argued it would be worse than the current prohibition — despite the fact that roughly 17,000 marijuana arrests occur each year in Ohio, and those arrests would largely be eliminated if this initiative were to pass.

    The Legislature Inserts Itself In The Fight

    But the situation in Ohio has become even more confusing because of the action of the Ohio legislature, in response to the filing of the Responsible Ohio initiative. The legislature has elected to use an option available to them (they are permitted this option by their state constitution, without the need to collect signatures) of adding a second voter initiative to the ballot this November that, if approved by the voters, they believe would render the Responsible Ohio proposal invalid. The proposal would ban the adoption by voter initiative of attempts to benefit select economic interest groups.

    The sponsor of this initiative, Democratic House member Mike Curtin, said he sponsored what he called his “anti-monoply” measue, not because he opposes the legalization of marijuana, but because he opposed the way Responsible Ohio is using the ballot measure to enrich themselves.

    What If Both Initiatives Are Approved

    Should the Responsible Ohio initiative be approved for the ballot, which is not yet certain (they recently turned in 695,273 signatures, more than double the 305,591 signatures required; but the Secretary of State’s office determined that only 42 percent of those were valid signatures, an unheard of failure rate, leaving them 29,509 signatures short, and 10 days to make-up the deficit), then the confusion really kicks-in.

    Ohio law appears to say if the two initiatives both pass, then the one with the highest number of votes would become effective. But Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican who opposed legalization, has announced his opinion that should the legislative proposal pass, it would take effect 30 days earlier than the citizen initiative, and would thus block the other proposal from taking effect. The only certainty is that should both initiatives pass, and the citizen initiative receive the higher total of votes, this is an issue that will eventually be decided in the Ohio courts.


    So the question becomes whether groups such as NORML should get involved in the fight over who gets rich off the legalization of marijuana, or whether we should continue to focus on ending the practice of treating marijuana smokers like criminals, and the establishment of a legally controlled market where consumers can buy their marijuana in a safe and secure environment, and leave these economic fights to others. At the national level, this seems like an easy decision.

    Some people get rich off of marijuana legalization, wherever it is adopted. There are scores of successful entrepreneurs who have surfaced in Colorado and Washington, and who are beginning to surface in Oregon and Alaska, creating new businesses and new jobs, and sometimes getting rich in the process. The phenomenon is know as the “Green Rush.” So we should not act shocked to learn that someone is going to get rich off marijuana legalization in Ohio, should it occur.

    Nor should opponents act so offended by the fact that average citizens in Ohio do not have the resources to be part of those investors who would control the commercial cultivation licenses. In many of the states that have legalized marijuana for medical use, for example, the licenses to cultivate or dispense the marijuana have been quite limited, and enormously expensive.

    In Massachusetts, for example, those seeking a license to commercially cultivate marijuana were required to put $500,000 in escrow before their application would even be reviewed. And in Florida, where a medical marijuana bill was approved permitting only low-THC, high CBD marijuana, applicants for one of only five licenses for a cultivation center were required to post a $5 million performance bond and pay a $100,000 non-refundable application fee, and demonstrate they have been in the nursery business in Florida for a minimum of 30 years. Few average citizens in either state would have the ability to participate in the profitable legal marijuana market, yet we did not hear a lot of protest from citizens in either state.

    Further, most states that have legalized marijuana for either medical use or for everyone have established caps on the number of licenses for producers and distributors. These caps vary widely from state to state and market to market, with some states limiting the number of producers to no more than two (Minnesota) or three (Delaware).

    So there is really nothing unique about the Ohio proposal, other than it is being funded by the very people who will benefit from its passage, instead of by billionaire philanthropists. But the bottom line is that someone gets rich off legalization, regardless of how it is funded, or structured.

    At NORML, we recognize there are many inequities in the free market system, with an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the rest of us. But NORML is not an organization established to deal with income inequality; we are a lobby for responsible marijuana smokers. So we will leave other issues, including income inequality, to other organizations who focus on those issues, and we will continue to focus on legalizing marijuana.

    And if the investor driven legalization initiative in Ohio qualifies for the ballot, national NORML will almost certainly support it. And we hope, so will a majority of the voters in Ohio.

    53 responses to “Sorting Through the Marijuana Mess in Ohio”

    1. Don M says:

      For a while the thought of people who have not been pro-marijuana in the past, and may have been totally against it, getting rich from legal marijuana really bothered me. To some extent, it still does; they don’t deserve it.

      That said, I would still support legalization in spite of the reward going to already rich people who may not care one bit about marijuana (other than it’s potential to make them more money). I would support any legalization measure because it is better than the status quo. We have to stop locking up hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding people for such an incredibly minor offense; if having a joint is even an offense at all in any real sense…

      I am a bit pissed that President Obama has apparently decided to let Congress work towards removing marijuana from it’s schedule 1 status. Most of us know that a Republican led congress is not likely to do that. They would have much to loose in the form of payouts from Big Pharma and Law Enforcement bribes.

      President Obama should do what we thought he would when we elected him to be president and that is to work towards legalizing this safe herb and ending mass incarceration. You would think the mere fact that he is African American would be enough to cause to him to act to end this broadly racist policy of marijuana prohibition. Well, he is still out president for another year and a half. We can only hope he does the right thing while he still has the chance. Many others have been in power and spoke out against the drug war and prohibition only after they are no longer in power (cowards mostly).

    2. vickia52 says:

      Anything is better than nothing! Any of the readers that visit and post, probably see my often rants. Most often political! I’ll be nice today. Like Jessi says, Question more, stay vigilant!

    3. bobwv says:

      Ohio is 25 miles away. I don’t care who gets rich.
      This is just the crumbs. Cannabis is a trillion dollar crop. It’s industrial use will dwarf recreational and medical use combined. Seems like plenty of room for many to get rich.

    4. Just An Observer says:

      NORML’s “half a loaf is better than none” perspective will be a winner in the long term. Once some sort of legalization is in place, there will be changes to how a legalized marketplace is allowed to carry on.

      Besides, the Ohioans can grow their four plants just like in Oregon and if enough plants are grown, the marketplace will be awash in weed and thus make those corporations compete on price.

    5. gear says:

      I doubt this will make this Nov vote,way to many invalid signatures thrown out to qualify as registered voters,or false signatures.Ohio is full of welfare recipients and hippies that don’t vote,its embarrassing really for the people that do vote and invest energy in this.get your act together people.

    6. Cat Cassie says:

      Oh I hope it’s true for Ohio. Good Luck!!!!

    7. Ben says:

      Exactly, beggars cannot be pickers and choosers. These people offer salvation from prohibition, why wouldn’t you take that over continued prosecution?

    8. Julian says:

      Excellent article Keith.

      Don’t hold your breath folks; I predict both measures pass and it gets stuck in court for a year or two. Still remarkable legislature that can be used in rulings before 2016 elections.

      As for prioritizing getting people out if jail and amending inequalities later Im all for it… The greatest income inequality of all is the disproportionate incarceration of people of color for the equal consumption of marijuana and small possessions.

      If we don’t like oligarchies funding our voter initiatives than let’s get out and crowdfund our own!!!

      Its better than living in a state like Texas withOUT voter initiatives so Senador Judas Cruz can flip flop on marijuana legalization opinions in states like Colorado that DO while still maintaining prohibition in his own state; and all just to launder some dirty cash on a made to fail presidential race funded by a made to fail drug war.

      Legalize and Regulate with Revenue to Educate… (Even if the marijuana-taxed education has to come after prisoners are freed, pardoned and allowed to vote…)

    9. Ray says:


      As a cancer survivor I have to step in and say that NORML MUST get involved regardless of who profits off the legalization efforts in Ohio. How many more people have to die from Glioblastoma at the Taussig Cancer Institute in Ohio?

      How about giving University Hospitals Neurological Institute’s Epilepsy Center in Cleveland, Ohio another tool in their toolbox when dealing with patents suffering from debilitating seizures, including children and infants with Dravet Syndrome.

      Give the Shawnee, the Chippewa, Lenape and many other Ohio Native American Tribes the freedom to grow and harvest hemp (and cannabis) while educating them to moderate their intake of alcohol which has caused an epidemic of diabetes among the American Indian population.

      Of those 17,000 Ohio marijuana arrests how many were African American, Hispanic, Native American, or some unlucky white guys?

      How many Ohio teens were refused financial aid due to their marijuana arrest?

      Marijuana Prohibition is racist bull shit, the only reason it continued is because in the 1930’s FDR died before he could work with Fiorello La Guardia to end it. In the 1971 Nixon even placed Marijuana in CSA schedule 1, yet we know cannabis has medical benefits.

      Lastly we have to ask ourselves if hemp or cannabis could be used to make the “Ultimate Weapon”. We don’t know because in America we can not study it due to its CSA schedule, but Russia and China have been using hemp for eons. This in itself is a national security issue that needs to be studied and the sooner the better.

      Food, Fiber, Fuel – Think about that for a second…… Fuel….we can GROW our own fuel.

    10. Brutal Truth says:

      Maybe all those hippies who fear big marijuana monopolies and would rather vote for prohibition than freedom would feel more at home in a “socialist” country like Sweden. I’m pretty sure they will really be into that country’s drug policy. It’s awesome, “dudes”. I promise! Christiania is only a few miles to the south!