Ohio’s Proposed Pot Oligarchy

Kentucky’s state elections are the most prominent event being held today. But another high-profile ballot test is in Ohio, where a pot legalization initiative is on tap.

But this isn’t just any old pot legalization initiative, as German Lopez tells us in a Vox “explainer:

Ohio is already an unexpected candidate for full legalization compared with the four legal pot states. It isn’t especially progressive like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state, or libertarian like Alaska. It doesn’t even have medical marijuana yet, although it was one of the states to decriminalize pot back in the 1970s.

But what’s truly unusual is how Ohio’s Issue 3, as the legalization measure is called, is structured. It doesn’t just legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes; it puts the wealthy contributors for the legalization campaign in charge of growing all the pot in the state — as an explicit gift for their support. That hasn’t just rankled opponents of legalization, it has also pushed away some of the major national advocacy groups that would typically back a marijuana legalization measure.

The distinction has left even supporters of legalization wondering: Is ending the failed war on marijuana worth locking Ohio into a potentially disastrous system of legalization?

Proponents of the initiative apparently think so.

Knowing that a ballot measure would be very expensive, ResponsibleOhio, the group behind the state’s legalization measure, structured its initiative to reward the top contributors to the campaign — and therefore get them on board. As a result, the state will only allow 10 marijuana farms, and more than 20 wealthy contributors signed on to the campaign will get guaranteed licenses to all 10 sites. These contributors vary — ranging from 98 Degrees band member Nick Lachey to the local Taft family.

These 10 farms will then sell marijuana to more than 1,100 retail outlets, nonprofit medical dispensaries, and manufacturers. The measure charges a regulatory commission with overseeing all of these businesses, with a particular focus on making sure that Ohio’s demand for marijuana is met by the industry.

The Ohio initiative illustrates the points that my own favorite drug policy expert, Mark Kleiman, has been making for some time, most notably in a 2014 article for the Washington Monthly: how cannabis is legalized matters as much as whether it is legalized.

So what does Kleiman think of the Ohio initiative? Not much, as he explained about a month ago at Ten Miles Square:

[T]he marijuana movement has begun to give way to the marijuana lobby. To be sure, I’ve had my share of clashes with movement folks, and I haven’t always been impressed with their policy acumen or their standards of argument, but I’ve never seen any reason to doubt that they’re advocating the public interest as they perceive it. The people now being hired by the guys in suits doing cannabis-business stock promotions play by different rules. I expect them to have about the same ethical standards as lobbyists for the alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical, food, and fossil-fuels industries: that is, I expect them to be utterly willing to sacrifice human health and welfare on the altar of the operating statement, just like those folks at VW who decided it would be a cute idea to poison the air just a little bit to goose the performance of their diesel-driven cars.

[W]e can also expect direct raids on the public purse. The most outrageous current example is Responsible Ohio, which might politely be described as an open conspiracy to defraud Ohio taxpayers. A group of ten entrepreneurs put up $2 million each to draft and circulate an initiative petition to legalize cannabis growing and sale in Ohio. The proposal – which, if it passes next month, will be written into the Ohio constitution – will allow pot to be grown only on ten parcels of land, specified in the proposition. By some freaky coincidence, it just happens that each of the generous-spirited citizens sponsoring the proposition – including, inevitably, a Taft – turns out to be the owner of one of those parcels. So they are attempting to grant themselves oligopoly control over the cannabis market in perpetuity.

Note that the result will be higher prices than would otherwise obtain, and that those of us concerned with the public-health impact of free-market legalization think that higher prices are desirable. So you can think of the Responsible Ohio proposal as fairly sensible drug policy combined with the brazen theft of public property. (Because of course you could get the same price increase via taxation, with the other taxpayers of Ohio benefiting instead of the greed-heads behind OR.)

If all you care about is the right to fire up a doobie legally in Ohio, I guess the initiative is worth voting for. But it will set a terrible precedent that will almost certainly be emulated in other relatively conservative states where public opinion alone isn’t strong enough to carry a legalization proposal to fruition.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.