CLEVELAND, Ohio — Forget the presidential campaign that includes our governor, at least for this year.
The most interesting campaign in Ohio in 2015 is the one to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use. And it could have a much greater impact on residents and businesses in this state than any presidential campaign promise made now or next year.
The campaign to legalize marijuana, known as ResponsibleOhio, succeeded this week in placing the issue before voters this November, something that’s never been done before in Ohio. The proposal, which would change the Ohio Constitution, will appear on the ballot as Issue 3. On Monday, those opposed to the plan, who have been slow to organize, will begin pushing back.
Business, government, health, and law enforcement officials, among others, have been paying close attention to the campaign, examining the vast ramifications of legalizing pot for people at least 21-years-old. (You can read our extensive coverage of the impact of legalization, led by Northeast Ohio Media Group Reporter Jackie Borchardt, here.)
ResponsibleOhio is well funded. To raise money, ResponsibleOhio recruited investors and offered them exclusive rights to grow pot for sale in Ohio at one of just 10 sites, in exchange for committing millions to the campaign. The ballot amendment enshrines the 10 locations in the constitution while blocking competing grow sites.
This monopolistic structure has generated plenty of backlash, even among people who have long advocated for legalization. The backlash has been a major distraction to ResponsibleOhio’s efforts to sell what it says are the economic and safety merits of legalization.
But ResponsibleOhio has the upper hand when it comes to money. Its backers have committed around $20 million to the voter campaign, which has likely burned through between $4 and $5 million to this point. (ResponsibleOhio backers have raised more than $35 million, according to government investment records, but that money also went to purchase the 10 pot farms.)
Exactly how far the remaining campaign money will go depends on what groups and individuals opposed to the plan can raise and spend in an effort to defeat Issue 3.
Opponents won’t need to match ResponsibleOhio dollar for dollar because they don’t carry the burden of convincing voters to make such a radical change. But in a state this big, any meaningful statewide television campaign costs more than $1 million a week. Veteran Columbus political consultant Curt Steiner is helping lead the opposition.
Among the biggest potential contributors are chambers of commerce around the state, which oppose Issue 3. There’s also the beer-and-wine industry and the retailers that sell beer and wine. They surely don’t want another recreational drug legalized. That could cut into their mighty profits. But by jumping into this battle, the alcohol industry risks drawing attention to the dubious virtues of drinking.
This week, the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association formally opposed the marijuana plan, but it’s unclear if the association will back up its press releases with serious money.
Not surprisingly, most of the state’s lawmakers are against ResponsibleOhio’s plan. The Ohio General Assembly approved in June a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit monopolies from being written into the state constitution.
Lawmakers claim the goal of the amendment is to prevent special interests from hijacking the constitution, not to block legalization of marijuana. But the anti-monopoly amendment – which will appear on the November ballot as Issue 2 — contains special language that would do just that. If voters approve both measures in November, the anti-monopoly amendment could nullify the marijuana amendment.
I support the anti-monopoly amendment in concept, but this one doesn’t feel genuine. Where were lawmakers when a few gaming companies used the constitution to control casinos profits in Ohio in 2009? Why didn’t lawmakers put a better-structured marijuana proposal before voters to decide?
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, a Republican, and Democratic State Rep. Mike Curtin are among leaders who strongly back the anti-monopoly amendment. The anti-monopoly amendment is lacking any visible campaign at the moment. But supporters will surely launch one soon, and they are widely expected to share and coordinate efforts with those opposed to marijuana legalization.
But by jumping into this battle, the alcohol industry risks drawing attention to the dubious virtues of drinking.
ResponsibleOhio is already throwing punches. Campaign leader Ian James says the marijuana plan will create 10 companies that can be regulated, while the anti-monopoly amendment, or Issue 2, will maintain the status quo that protects the monopolies of drug dealers and illegal cartels.
See what I mean? The battle over marijuana legalization and monopolies is already more interesting than the presidential campaign.
I can’t wait to hear more.