Crony Pot Initiative Burns Out in Ohio

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

One of the more bizarre contests in Tuesday’s voting was a ballot initiative ostensibly to legalize marijuana in Ohio.

The ballot measure, Issue 3, would have legalized recreational use of marijuana in the state and allowed the use of marijuana for medicinal reasons. The initiative had a unique, and ultimately fatal, feature, though. It awarded a monopoly on growing pot to just 10 farms in the state.

Issue 3 was rejected by Ohio voters by a 65-35 percent margin. The vote may not be a clear reflection of attitudes towards pot legalization, though.

The pot initiative was ground-breaking far beyond its subject matter. It was, in many ways, a private initiative designed to leverage the ballot process for maximum personal profit. The measure authorized 10 farms to grow legal weed in the state. The 1,100 legal weed shops authorized by the measure would be forced to buy marijuana from one of these 10 farms.

The initiative was the brain-child of political consultant Ian James. With the help of a sports agent, he recruited ten investment groups who each invested $2 million to get the measure on the ballot and fund the campaign’s for its adoption. Each of these groups would receive ownership of one of the 10 authorized pot farms.

One study estimated that, within 4 years, these 10 farms would be selling more than $1 billion in marijuana every year. That is a very nice return on a $2 million political investment.

The returns were so good, in fact, that they attracted a hodgepodge of D-list celebrities. Boy-band star Nick Lachey would have owned a pot farm. Basketball legend Oscar Robertson, NFL player Frostee Rucker, fashion designer Nanette LePore and two great-great-grand nephews of President William Howard Taft were also set to become pot barons.

While it is not uncommon for interest groups or individuals to push ballot initiatives that would benefit them, the Ohio pot measure raised this to an entirely new level. The funders of the initiative, effectively, were written into the state’s constitution as the sole financial beneficiaries of the new law.

“What’s unique about (this measure) is just how very explicit they are,” Brittany Clingen, senior elections analyst for the nonprofit research group Ballotpedia, told the Chicago Tribune. “This is a new level of pay-to-play democracy. The concept behind it is not unusual, but the implementation is unique.”

“They are creating a constitutionally mandated oligopoly,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, argued. The Alliance, which works to reform the nation’s drug laws, stayed neutral in the Ohio contest, largely because of this commercial monopoly.

The pot measure even sparked a second initiative, Issue 2, placed on that ballot by the Ohio Legislature. That measure would prohibit any entity from giving itself any kind of explicit commercial advantage through a ballot initiative. That measure passed Tuesday by a slim margin. That new law could be the basis for legal challenges to future initiatives that are backed by powerful interest groups, even if the commercial benefits aren’t explicit.

Pot legalization in Ohio would have been a big deal politically. It would have become the most populous state to legalize weed. Also, success in Ohio would have represented something of a cultural shift in the war of drugs. It is not unexpected for Pacific coast states or Colorado to legalize weed, but it is something all together different if a big midwestern state does so.

That cultural shift may still be coming. A poll by Kent State University found broad support for legalizing pot for recreational use in the Buckeye State.

The public’s attitude to marijuana may be changing, but their opposition to monopolies and oligarchies remains very firm. Even supporters of weed would rather there be a free and open market for the drug rather than a government-protected monopoly.


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