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Will Ohio Become The Fifth Recreational Marijuana State?

At the end of March, the bipartisan Ohio Ballot Board approved a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would make marijuana legal for adults over the age of 21. The measure would also legalize medical marijuana use for minors, with parental consent.

In an attempt unseen in any other state legalization effort so far, the measure would investors now backing the measure significant rights in shaping the market. They would be allowed to own ten commercial marijuana grow sites in the state.

Legalization advocates have now swung into action to gather the 306,000 signatures needed by July to qualify the measure for the November 2015 ballot. It is widely expected that the wealthy investors who back the measure will also bankroll such efforts.

Some advocates remain leery of this clearly investor-oriented push to change the state constitution. This includes NORML – the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws – who is concerned that this effort will overly corporatize the state market and push out smaller players. That said, if this effort obtains the needed signatures, the group will most probably support the measure.

ResponsibleOhio, the group behind the legalization effort, is seeking to pioneer a new kind of model for financing a state marijuana-legalization campaign. The group, led by Cincinnati sports agent James Gould, is putting up $20 million to finance the legalization effort in exchange for exclusive rights to 10 marijuana farms across the state. Concerns that this model will create a monopoly if not “cartel” have arisen from both legalization advocates and proponents.

That said, none of the traditional reform advocates in the state have had enough money or organization prowess to put this kind of amendment on the ballot so far. In Ohio, there have been three previous attempts to achieve this goal since 2011. All have failed because of the inability to collect enough signatures to qualify for a state vote, let alone driving a voter turnout campaign.

Ohio is a politically strategic state for this movement to occur. Last year, a Quinnipiac University poll found an 8 to 1 support for medical marijuana from voters in the state. 78% of Republicans polled also supported the measure. It is also a swing state in presidential elections where the issue of marijuana reform is likely to be the hottest political litmus test facing all candidates. Only Republican contender Rand Paul has a clear record on advocating for legalization.

One of the biggest reasons supporters are touting this measure is that they claim that this model will result in an additional $2.2 billion in state revenues by 2020. This is now slated to go for municipal projects that include policing, fire fighting and road and bridge repair.

That said, this estimate also seems not only high, but based on a tax logic that is looking increasingly shaky in the aftermath of the ongoing problems in Washington State, in particular. To put this in perspective, the German Green Party, now debating a legalization initiative for the entire country, has estimated that German taxes from pot (with a 19% VAT) will bring in 2 billion euros a year.

Many advocates, therefore, while saying they will support the measure in the fall, are publicly expressing doubts that this is really the kind of marijuana reform proposal, not to mention “business initiative” to change the law that they have worked for, in some cases, decades.

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