Lessons Learned from the Debacle in Ohio

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel November 5, 2015

    Issue 3, the marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot in Ohio this past Tuesday, was surprisingly unpopular with the voters, and lost the vote by 65 percent to 35 percent. It was an old-fashioned ass kicking – a drubbing that came despite polls indicating a slim majority of the public in Ohio favored legalizing marijuana.

    That dramatic difference between the generic support for the concept of marijuana legalization, and the far lower support for the provisions contained in Issue 3, lead to a number of conclusions.

    First, it suggests that unlimited amounts of money may not be the magic bullet for enacting legalization in a traditionally conservative state. Obviously a fat wallet makes it possible to collect the signatures to qualify the proposal for the ballot, and to hire campaign workers to canvas eligible voters door-to-door, to encourage their support. But in the end, if specific provisions of the proposal are unpopular, money alone cannot overcome substantive weaknesses.

    Investor Driven Initiatives

    Clearly the fact that this initiative was investor driven, and would have enriched those who put up the money for the initiative, raised serious issues that were likely fatal to this initiative. Even many who favored marijuana legalization were unwilling to support this version, because of the oligopoly of commercial growers that would have been established for the state, assuring financial rewards for decades to come for those who were rich enough be part of the investment team.

    In the run-up to the election in Ohio, the opposition focused far less on an argument that legalization was bad public policy that would somehow harm residents of the state (the traditional arguments favored by opponents to legalization), and far more on the fact that the small group of investors were guaranteed to get rich. There was significant opposition to allowing this small group of people to use the voter initiative process for such obvious self-enrichment.

    Voter initiatives were a creation of the Progressive era, a method for average citizens to adopt public policy change without the involvement of the elected legislature, and the public perceived this effort in Ohio as a perversion of the voter initiative process. And they refused to permit that to occur, even though a slim majority supported the basic change that was being proposed.

    No one, except that small group of investors, liked the self-serving provisions contained in the language of the proposal, and even those of us who endorsed the proposal, because we felt it would stop the arrest of marijuana smokers years earlier that would likely happen if the change has to come through the state legislature, did so with strong reservations about that part of the proposal.

    NORML begrudgingly endorsed the initiative, because we are a single-issue organization and the proposal did contain the basic changes we have been fighting for, for more than four decades. But we underscored our dislike for the self-enrichment terms in the language, and said we did not consider it a model that should be considered by other states.

    But clearly a majority of the voters in Ohio put a higher priority on opposing those troublesome economic provisions, and were willing to continue prohibition rather than permit this attempt to pervert the initiative process to succeed. Whether this same conclusion will be shared by voters in other states is uncertain, but it surely should cause would-be investors hoping to cash-in in other states to proceed cautiously.


    And frankly, some of the problems leading to this result had to do with the seemingly cluelessness of Ian James and the others at Responsible Ohio, who were in charge of the campaign. When opponents began to focus on the economic interests of the initiative funders, the sponsors attempted to sell what was an obvious liability as the price one had to pay to move the marijuana issue out of the hands of hippies and the counter-culture, and into the political mainstream. They insulted those who had worked long and hard to move public policy towards legalization for decades, and suggested they were doing us all a favor by agreeing to embrace our basic political goal of legalization, for a price.

    Similarly, apparently unaware of the traditional low voter turnout by young voters in non-presidential election years – the strongest group of supporters for legalization — Responsible Ohio chose to run their initiative in 2015, rather than waiting for 2016 (as proponents have done in California, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Maine and Massachusetts). Again, instead of learning from the many marijuana initiatives that have occurred in this country going back to 1996, this gang who could not shoot straight claimed they preferred to run it in 2015, because of the usual low voter turnout, thinking their money could somehow invigorate the youth vote and they could sneak in a victory while the older voters were not paying attention. Talk about arrogance and hubris. These guys make Donald Trump seem humble!

    A further example of their cluelessness was their use of a colorfully decorated bus and a silly mascot named “Buddy” – a sort of superhero with a big marijuana bud for the head – in a state-wide tour, as their primary tactic for getting the youth vote energized and excited about the upcoming chance to legalize marijuana.

    Apparently they had never heard of “Joe Camel”, the cartoon camel that was used for years by big tobacco as a device to entice young Americans to try tobacco smoking, where once addicted, they would be tobacco customers for life, although that life would likely be cut short because of their use of tobacco. Following the discovery by Congressional investigators of documentation proving that was the intent of spending huge amounts of money to publicize Joe Camel, the tobacco companies were finally publicly shamed into ending the campaign and retiring Joe Camel.

    But when confronted by NORML and others for their eerily similar use of “Buddy,” James and the Responsible Ohio campaign ignored our warnings that many Americans, even those who favor marijuana legalization, remain concerned about the risk that legalization might somehow lead to an increase in adolescent marijuana smoking, and that they were setting themselves up as an easy target by long-time opponents of legalization (which, of course, came almost instantly). James actually insisted that their “Buddy” campaign was popular, was gaining them great press exposure, and the campaign continued all across the state, right up to the election.

    Again, the arrogance of this group was amazing, and their failure to understand the caution that is required when dealing with the marijuana issue, as contrasted to many other issues of public policy, was astounding.

    It is impossible, without exit polling (and I doubt Responsible Ohio will share their exit polling, assuming they even made the effort to find out why opponents voted the way they did) to know which of these several tactical and strategic blunders was primarily accountable for their embarrassing defeat. My personal belief is the economic self-enrichment was the major flaw in the campaign, but the decision to mount the effort in an off-year election clearly contributed to their defeat (the youth vote turnout was low), as did their use of “Buddy” with a tin ear to the likelihood it would appear they were appealing to adolescents.

    Responsible Ohio had this plan to legalize marijuana and get rich at the same time, and they were simply not interested in learning from the past, or even consulting with others who had far more experience in running marijuana-related initiatives.

    As a result, only James came out ahead, as he was allegedly paid more than $4 million dollars to run the ill-fated campaign. And even James may well learn to rue the day he took on this badly conceived campaign, as he is a professional who has made his reputation running more traditional campaigns, and it is difficult to imagine that his reputation will not suffer from this unnecessary debacle. Issue 3 will forever be a case study for how NOT to run a marijuana initiative.

    But the real losers are the marijuana smokers in Ohio, who will continue to be arrested for years to come – nearly 20,000 each year — when a better drafted and more professionally run campaign could have ended prohibition and stopped the marijuana arrests.

    22 responses to “Lessons Learned from the Debacle in Ohio”

    1. Julian says:

      HaHa! Keith said Ian James is less humble than Trump! Off season? A mascot named Buddy which was a lit joint with a flaming head? What was he supposed to do? Go to elementary schools and teach kids how to stop-drop and roll?

      Joking aside, the words “seemingly cluelessness” and “hubris” jump out at me from this blog. The whole drug war is an American tragedy that manufactures hubris out of the CSAct. But when someone like Ian James comes out of a made-to-fail campaign with a few million in his pocket and a deceptive attack on voter initiatives like proposition 2 passed, I have to say I believe the rat achieved exactly what he was paid to do. James is a double-agent.

      Now, thanks to prop 2, if Ohio wants to pass any future voter initiative they will have to declare marijuana an open source commodity, because they just gave the Republican legislature the authority to define a monopoly however they see fit. Way to go Ohio. You will probably have to sue the board just to get a federal judge to properly define the word “monopoly.” (And no, James, we’re not talking about the board game).

    2. smitty says:

      Actually, RO did consult with Rob Ryan (former Ohio NORML president) and the Miami Valley NORML which resulted in significant improvements, including home grow.

      As for a “better drafted and more professionally run campaign”, yes that may have made the difference, but it should also be recognized that RO ponied up the cash that is the mother’s milk of politics.

      Without that money we can expect exactly *nothing* on the ballot as Ohio’s qualifications for ballot access are a steep hill to climb. Just ask Ohio’s medical cannabis advocate-Ohio Rights Group (ORG).

      Regardless of any flaws in the RO plan, the choice was still a clear one for the cannabis community.

      Vote yes and end cannabis prohibition, and yes, make the rich-that invested the money-richer.


      Vote no and keep cannabis prohibition in place and make the super-rich violent nasty Mexican drug cartel richer.

      It is a disgrace that some in the cannabis community refused to think critically and chose to dream rather than grab the possible.

      We may be in for a long wait…

    3. brentandrews says:

      Keith, I truly appreciate your analysis of this situation, and that you laid fault at fault’s door. Most of all I appreciate your laser like focus on our shared goal: that the government should stop arresting marijuana smokers. The Mexican Supreme Court says personal liberty trumps the other issues surrounding prohibition – your main point as long as I’ve known you. And here comes Uncle Bernie with a full and fitting lid for the drug War’s coffin. We will win in our lifetimes. We will not leave this war on pot to be a yoke in our childrens’ necks.

    4. Lenny says:

      Very good analysis. I would also add how Ohio failed to envision their impact on the whole country. Arrests will take place and families destroyed and the ill will continue to be denied medicine across the nation because Ohio failed to seize the opportunity at hand.

      You can call James arrogant, and be accurate, but I personally thought it was smart to motivate youth and try to catch slacking elders in an off election year. The greed however handed opposition a silver bullet and sounded the horn of Gabriel by allowing them to invoke the wording of monopoly.

      Can we maybe put more focus on concessions legalization supporters need to be willing to make, and the tilting balance of greater good? The world we live in is greed, as demonstrated by opposition to Issue 3, albeit disguised. We will not win the war if people already with their weed try to force ideals on those of us just after the greater good.

    5. Derek says:

      @Smitty, A large majority of those who favor legalization are not smokers. They are not part of the cannabis community. They are the votes we need and we won’t get them through bad campaigning. Furthermore, other states have been able to raise money without the same baggage attached. It might not be as much but money doesn’t win elections, only insufficient money loses them.

    6. Rocky Coast says:

      If I lived in Ohio, of course I’d have voted yes.

      But let’s be honest here. This initiative was doomed long before the votes began.

      Responsible Ohio and its financiers did everything wrong.

      1.2015 was the worst year possible to put this to a vote.

      2. It was a get-richer-quick scheme for a small number of investors–so much so that it fueled support for issue 2.

      3. Trying to legalize medical and recreational in a Midwestern state in one fell swoop was a disservice to medical marijuana users in Ohio.

      4. The counterproductive mascot, Buddie.

      5. It screwed Ohio for years to come. It wasn’t just a loss, it’s a “well, I better get the hell out of Ohio now and start new somewhere else” loss.

      The silver lining is that it provides a blueprint for exactly WHAT NOT TO DO for future legalization crusades in other states.

    7. Fat freddy says:

      In the end, liberals always win

    8. Alex says:

      For all you that say it’s the voters fault, you are absolutely WRONG. ResponsibleOhio knew that public opinion was against their business model. They could have changed it if they cared about the citizens and people who need it. But they didn’t. They continued to be greedy and tried to get their way instead of listening to the people. In case you haven’t looked Ohio’s economy is not the best. People are still looking for jobs. If they would have opened it up to everyone it would have provided twice as many jobs as RO claimed they would produce, but they didn’t want anyone dipping into their pockets. If you want someone to blame, blame the greedy and arrogant investors that tried to exploit your feeling of compassion for patients for the lining of their pockets. America was built on free capitalism, and we will continue to fight to keep it that way.

    9. Nobody Special says:

      The truest takeaway is that cannabis reform is most certainly not a single issue. That the substance exists, has been used by over 100,000,000 Americans, has resulted in $1 trillion+ of tax waste, has resulted in the systemically racist legal and law enforcement systems we live with now, and is a multibillion-dollar industry in and of itself – illicit or not – should clue everyone in that the topic is multifaceted. It spans not just constitutional and criminal law, but economics, human rights, equality, security, international commerce, and international relations. And we all know this list is not exhaustive. It’ reaches far and wide across the philosophical, moral and social spectrums we live within.

      A single-minded approach worked for 40 years, when few supported reform of any kind. Now that about half the nation agrees with reform, there has to be a coming of age within the movement to acknowledge and engage the greatly expanded interests of these disparate people who, in addition to cannabis reform, wish to do so in the context of these other concepts and issues. They cannot be ignored any longer in favor of an obsolete strategy.

      Yes, the RO idea was monstrously stupid and the arrogance of the cabal only fueled the opposition of which I was most certainly a part of. Insulting the intelligence of regular, educated and thoughtful citizens, and ignoring a fundamental understanding of a broad – not narrow – issue was a massive mistake and doomed it from conception.

      Other potential predators can now be on notice: cynicism may be alive and well, but it’s not tolerated by most. If you want to lose millions, behave like a predator and try to decieve people into a den of theives. Watch the money swirl down the drain while everyone benefiting and suffering from this regime continues unabated in their activities.

      It was a fiasco alright. I certainly hope NORML wakes up and acknowledges their own need to evolve. The risk, which has already been made apparent by the tactics that prevailed in Issue 3’s defeat, is that all reformers are painted with the RO brush now. NORML made their own plight even harder by endorsing it with a narrow focus, which again insults the intelligence and understanding of the mainstream voters so desperately needed now.

      The one potential benefit of this awful mess – a mess every single supporter of this failure shares blame in – is that it just may have made truly influential people aware that predators continue to knock at the door, and that they better get in front of things before another lion seeks to devour their constitution.

      Let’s hope NORML and the other advocacy groups catch up to the movement and realize there is now both impetus and benefit to sussing out a good versus bad proposal. As mainstream America considers dismantling this awful war, they need leadership and guidance on what constitutes good legalization. They will look to and listen to NORML and others to guage what constitutes a good idea. The movement’s reputation and efficacy now depends on it, and if not careful, deep damage to the movement’s hard-won credibility is certain.

      It’s time to evolve.

      [Editor’s note: Predators? How civil-minded of you…

      Evolve? To what, anti-prohibitionists? To an organization against mass arrest for cannabis cultivation, sales and possession?

      Sussing out? Sounds rather academic if not abstract. Whether the billionaires who donated for cannabis law reform circa 1996 or the investor-driven model that emerged unsuccessfully in Ohio, those with the money in politics re initiatives decide the language and strategies. Individuals and organizations can suss all they like, but if they’re not paying the piper, they can’t logically expect to have their music played. Politics is simple like that, from ancient times forward.

      Movement? What movement? Who leads this so-called movement? Who enforces the mores and norms of this supposed movement? Where is the headquarters of this movement? Is this so-called movement led by a single entity or many?

      Cannabis has become increasingly tolerated and legal in the U.S. (and around the world) after a long and dark epoch of prohibition. The reforms have come about through a series of policy patchwork, achieved politically when possible, by numerous organizations, for different reasons and motivations, in myriad ways (initiatives, legislation, litigation and regulatory change).

      The failure of the organizers in OH to better employ their resources to cast a more effective winning strategy is not in question in anyone’s minds. The organizers of the Ohio efforts were counseled by all of the reform groups and civil justice organizations who’ve been working for decades on cannabis law reform, and, they opted not to follow the counsel.

      There was no guarantee of success–there never is when ‘controversial’ change is being sought for voters to approve, especially for the first time, notably in pure opposition from the state government–but that does not stop principled and forward-looking civil justice organizations actually involved in state and federal cannabis prohibition advocacy like NORML (or the ACLU) from endorsing an initiative that ends prohibition and replaces a long-failed policy with a tax-n-regulate policy.

      NORML has consistently supported every cannabis reform measure that has made the ballot since 1972 (all have been flawed in one form or another, from one view or another) and it will very likely continue to do so as ‘reform’ is in the organization’s name not ‘perfect’.]