State Elections

Published — August 12, 2015

Ohioans to vote on marijuana legalization in November


Ballot measure has been described as an ‘oligopoly’ for growers


A controversial measure to legalize marijuana in Ohio will go before voters this fall.

Ohio’s elections chief on Wednesday confirmed the measure would make the Nov. 3 ballot, approving the signatures the pro-legalization group collected in a 10-day make-up period after many of the first 695,000 signatures were found to be invalid.

The initiative would change Ohio’s constitution to legalize medicinal and recreational marijuana use and also give the exclusive right to grow and sell wholesale pot to 10 farms, all of which are owned by the ballot measure’s financial backers.

But the measure, which critics say amounts to a “marijuana oligopoly,” won’t be alone on the ballot. Opponents in the Ohio legislature sent a competing amendment to voters that would outlaw constitutional changes that benefit limited economic interest groups, like those behind the marijuana proposal.

“Hopefully the people of Ohio will decide to protect the clean constitution,” said state auditor Dave Yost, a critic of the marijuana measure. “The door remains open for cannabis legalization by petition by initiative. What we won’t have is this current system that’s poorly thought out and favors a few rich investors.”

Now that the marijuana measure is on the ballot, Responsible Ohio, the group backing it, is expected to start spending a large portion of its $20 million budget to convince Ohioans to vote “yes” in November.

“It’s time for marijuana legalization in Ohio, and voters will have the opportunity to make it happen this November — we couldn’t be more excited,” said Responsible Ohio Executive Director Ian James in a statement. “By reforming marijuana laws in November, we’ll provide compassionate care to sick Ohioans, bring money back to our local communities and establish a new industry with limitless economic development opportunities.”

The group began running TV ads in Ohio during the Republican presidential debate on Aug. 6. Responsible Ohio is also promoting a new series of videos on its website.

“This amendment will give Ohio a once-in-a-generation opportunity to be the national leader in a multibillion-dollar industry and create new jobs,” one of the videos says.

But Responsible Ohio may not be alone in pushing a marijuana message on Ohio’s airwaves this fall. A coalition of opponents plans to fund ads advocating against the measure, said Elise Spriggs, a Columbus lawyer and spokeswoman for the group. But their fundraising won’t match Responsible Ohio’s millions, she said.

“Whatever we raise it’s never going to be near the same as what the monopoly interests have raised and are raising,” she said.

The Responsible Ohio group is facing another obstacle as well: The Ohio Secretary of State appointed a special investigator to look into what he called a “possible case of election fraud” related to discrepancies in the group’s signatures.

Even if Responsible Ohio’s measure doesn’t pass, the political consultant who came up with the idea for the measure and is running the campaign, Ian James, will rake in cash. His company, The Strategy Network, has already been paid $2.5 million for gathering signatures, according to the most recent campaign filing. James is an extreme example of the network of politicos who profit in the world of direct democracy, an earlier investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found.

But if voters turn down legal pot this year, the Ohio marijuana investors may be back in 2016.

“If something goes wrong the first time, we’ll put up the money the second time,” investor Alan Mooney said.

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