On Tuesday, Ohio could become the fifth state to legalize recreational marijuana. But the story line there is less about how a culturally conservative state feels about pot and more about how a group of savvy political and business operatives are forging a new path forward for the growing movement that could fundamentally change who gets in the game -- and why.
Depending on what happens in Ohio, the next iteration of pro-legalization activists could be motivated by an entirely different kind of green: Cash. Here's what you need to know about Ohio's unusual ballot initiative to legalize pot and how it could change the marijuana legalization movement.
It's not your average legalization campaign
There are a lot of firsts in Ohio, actually. If it legalizes recreation marijuana, Ohio would be the first Midwestern state and the first privately organized legalization campaign, notes Denver-based journalist Josiah M. Hesse in a Politico magazine piece.
It's also the first state to try to legalize recreational and medical marijuana at once. (States like Colorado and Washington already had a medical marijuana infrastructure in place when they expanded to recreational pot.)
But it's what happens after legalization that really sets Ohio's initiative apart. Cultivating and selling pot would be limited to 10 pre-determined farms. Any pot distributor in Ohio would have no choice but to buy marijuana grown from one of these farms. In essence, it's a marijuana monopoly.
Also unusual is the legalization campaign's blunt end game (see what we did there?). It's a constitutional amendment backed and financed almost exclusively by those who stand to benefit from its passage.
It's backed by Ohio pop culture stars
The owners of the 10 farms include a grab-bag group of 24 investors that include former 98 Degrees boy-band crooner Nick Lachey, as well as descendants of former president William Howard Taft and NBA star Oscar Robertson. If the amendment is approved, they'll be ground-floor investors in a business that advocates estimate will bring in $1 billion a year.
Each ownership group was asked to invest roughly $2 to $4 million in the ResponsibleOhio campaign advocating for legalization.
And that's precisely the problem, say a diverse group of opponents that includes marijuana legalization advocates, who are joining forces with the usual cast of opponents like law enforcement officers. Ohio's constitution could soon basically enshrine these people's rights to make money, explains The Washington Post's Jessica Contrera.
The idea is so controversial that, in July, state lawmakers threw their own ballot initiative out there to counter this one. Known as the "anti-monopoly amendment," it would ban anyone from creating a constitutional amendment exclusively for financial gain.
If both pass -- a possibility -- this whole drama could go to the courts.
It's splitting the marijuana industry
Supporters say the private-sector-driven initiative is the only way they could get a conservative-leaning state to even consider legalizing pot.
The brainchild of the initiative is veteran Ohio political operative Ian James, who has 30 years of experience in Ohio politics but little track record in the way of drug legalization. James has zeroed in on the traditional arguments for legalizing pot -- civil liberties, social justice, tax benefits -- and stayed away from the controversial layout of Ohio's potential pot industry.
"Let's stop pretending either that Ohioans don't consume marijuana or that only bad people do," he wrote in one of several op-eds during the spring.
Opponents, unsurprisingly, are calling to attention to the unique set-up.
"They are creating a constitutionally mandated oligopoly,” argues Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Despite Nadelmann's statement, the New York Times reports that the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance are officially neutral on the initiative, while the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws "gave it an uneasy endorsement."
The public is also split on what to do
Ohioans appear as undecided as the pros.
A recent Bowling Green University poll shows 44 percent were for it and 43 percent were against it -- well within the three-and-a-half-point margin of error -- and a relatively high 13 percent undecided.
Other polls also show just about anything could happen on Tuesday.
By Amber Phillips - The Washington Post/Nov. 3, 2015
Photo: John Minchillo, AP
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