State Elections

Published — October 15, 2015

Ad blitz tries to persuade Ohio voters to legalize marijuana

In a TV ad, Heather Benton advocates for a controversial Nov. 3 Ohio ballot measure that would legalize marijuana. She moved her family to Colorado for marijuana to alleviate her 4-year-old daughter’s seizures but would like to move back to Ohio. Screenshot/Responsible Ohio

Pot measure serves as bellwether for 2016 legalization movement


Heather Benton moved her family to Colorado for marijuana to alleviate her 4-year-old daughter’s seizures.

“We want to move back to Ohio, but we can’t, because her medicine is illegal there,” Benton says in a television ad playing across Ohio this fall. “It is time for marijuana reform. It is time to go home.”

The emotional ad is part of an estimated $3.1 million worth of TV advertisements aired so far that push a November ballot measure to make Ohio the first state in the nation to legalize recreational and medical marijuana at the same time. If approved, Ohio would be the fifth state to legalize recreational use of marijuana, behind Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon.

But appearing on the same ballot is an initiative to invalidate the pro-pot measure. State lawmakers put the counter-measure before voters because they say the legalization effort is an attempt to create a “marijuana monopoly.” If both measures pass, the fight would likely end up before the courts.

The fate of the legalization campaign in a bellwether, presidential swing state like Ohio may have implications for the 2016 elections.

A win “would catapult the issue further in presidential debates,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that has pushed for legalization but has not endorsed the Ohio measure.

“To have that in a major swing state in American politics, in a state that’s seen as politically conservative, I think that would have a significantly beneficial impact” on further legalization efforts, he said.

Besides the presidential election, at least five more states are expected to vote on legalizing the drug in 2016.

The dueling Ohio initiatives are not the only ballot battles across the nation this year. A total of 28 statewide measures are on ballots in nine states this year. An estimated $6.4 million has been spent to air TV ads about five of them, with the Ohio pot measure accounting for nearly half of the ad spending so far. Ballot topics range from transportation to education.

Another $3.2 million has been spent on ads about local measures, including an estimated $1.7 million from an Airbnb-backed group in San Francisco that is asking voters there to reject proposed rules limiting short-term housing rentals.

The Center for Public Integrity analyzed advertising data through Oct. 12 from media tracker Kantar Media/CMAG, a firm that monitors 211 media markets around the country. The figures do not include ads for radio, the Internet, direct mail or TV ads that air on local cable systems. The estimates do not include the cost of making the ads.

The first pro-marijuana TV messages in Ohio, which started airing Aug. 24, argued that legalization would hurt drug dealers, free up police to deal with other crimes and help sick kids such as Benton’s daughter. A newer ad combats opponents’ rallying cry that the measure would insert a monopoly into the state’s constitution.

The group pushing the measure, Responsible Ohio, is seeking a constitutional amendment that allows only 10 pot farms, which would be controlled by the investors backing its campaign.

“Like most states that legalized marijuana, it initially limits the number of growers with strict regulation,” a woman in one of the latest pro-pot ads says. “That’s a regulated industry without creating a monopoly.”

It appears no ads have run on broadcast TV advocating against legalization, according to a review of Kantar Media/CMAG data.

Opponents of the legalization measure have so far spread their messages online. They see Responsible Ohio’s newer ads as proof that the legalization measure is losing support.

“They’re starting to address the monopoly problem they have,” said Curt Steiner, campaign director for the opposition coalition. “Everything that I’m seeing tells me that they’re going to get beat. Their campaign is operating like a campaign that’s in trouble.”

A spokeswoman for Responsible Ohio said the group feels confident that the measure will pass.

An Ohio TV station earlier this week released a poll conducted by Kent State University researchers showing that 56 percent of Ohioans said they support the marijuana legalization measure.

The key question will be how many of them turn out for this particular marijuana legalization measure on Nov. 3, when the only other items up for a vote besides ballot measures are local elections.

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