Ohio’s recreational marijuana vote isn’t really about the weed

From Mashable

Marcus Gilmer

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Michael McGovern, a representative from ResponsibleOhio, a pro-marijuana legalization group, wears a sticker during a promotional tour stop at Miami University, Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, in Oxford, Ohio.

Image: John Minchillo/Associated Press

While the 2016 Presidential race continues to attract most media attention, Tuesday’s off-year election still features some interesting races — and a pair of competing ballot initiatives in Ohio that, on the surface, seem to be about the legalization of recreational marijuana.

But when voters in the Buckeye State pick up their ballots on Tuesday, they’ll face a unique choice on the issue. The pot-based ballot measures don’t necessarily reflect an up or down vote on legal weed in the state; rather, it has to do with who, exactly, would thrive in a new pot economy.

Issue 3 — which would, in essence, legalize recreational marijuana in Ohio — would also allow for what amounts to an oligopoly on commercial marijuana growth in the state. While every state resident 21 years of age or older would be allowed to own a certain amount of marijuana, (capped at four “flowering marijuana plants”), commercial growth would be limited to just 10 farms around the state, each owned by a different group of investors.

These investors were the force behind Issue 3 getting on the ballot in the first place. Some of the higher-profile investors include former pop star Nick Lachey and NBA great Oscar Robertson, and they all stand to make a lot of money if Issue 3 passes.

The Washington Post lays out the scenario:

Each ownership group was asked to put up an initial $4 million to underwrite the ballot campaign; it cost them an estimated $10 million more to buy land and get their farms up and running. Lachey’s piece of the action would be 29 acres just outside of Akron, which he would co-own with a couple of financial executives and a car dealership owner from Texas. Every one of the 1,100 state-regulated marijuana retail shops across Ohio will have no choice but to buy from his or one of the other nine farms.

One study the Post cites claims that when everything is up and running, these 10 farms could be making more than $1.1 billion in sales every year. Ian James, the political consultant ultimately responsible for Issue 3 and ResponsibleOhio, the group backing Issue 3, says it could generate around $550 million a year in tax revenue.

ResponsibleOhio even went the mascot route in its attempt to win voters over, creating a cheerleader in Buddie, an oversized marijuana bud.

Opponents of Issue 3, though, argue this sort of collusion shouldn’t be passed as an amendment to the state constitution.

Enter Issue 2 on the ballot, labeled the “Anti-Monopoly” initiative, aimed at protecting “the initiative process from being used for personal economic benefit.” Issue 2 is not about rejecting recreational marijuana, which appears nowhere in the ballot description. It’s more about preventing potential monopolies (or oligopolies) from pushing through legislation for profit.

Or, in simpler terms, canceling out Issue 3.

The fight has resulted in some strange contradictions: legalization advocates are cautioning against legislation that would legalize marijuana while government officials who might otherwise stand on opposite sides of the legalization debate are joining forces.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the pro-legalization organization NORML, told CNN that while his group supports Issue 3 in theory, he doesn’t approve Issue 3 as it is on the ballot: “The motivation of the people behind [Issue 3] are making enemies of the supporters.”

Adam Orens, managing director for the Marijuana Policy Group, also told CNN he’d advise Ohio voters in favor of legalization to wait for “a better piece of legislation.”

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Ohio lawmakers have formed Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies, dedicated to defeating Issue 3. The group has managed to secure the backing of politically opposite organizations that may have otherwise been divided on the recreational marijuana issue. There are likely few other initiatives when the Stonewall Democrats of Central Ohio stand in unity with the Tuscarawas County Republican Party.

The collective also counts the state’s major health care systems and newspapers among its supporters.

(That said, the OAMM website still features some hand-wringing, alarmist sections like “Marijuana candy,” which warns of edibles, and “Marijuana on every street corner,” which stops just short of screaming “Won’t someone think of the children?”)

For more information, check out a sample ballot here.

If both pass, will Issue 2 cancel out the bad parts of Issue 3? Bottom line: nobody knows. The furor over the competing initiatives could prove to be a prelude to a long, heated battle in the courts.

The battle could also play a small, strange part on the 2016 national political stage as a presidential election issue and as other states look to put marijuana legalization measures on their ballots. And who knows, maybe the fight could even play a role in the GOP’s 2016 national convention, slated to take place in Cleveland in late July.

Whatever happens, it’s clear that this battle is about green — the folding kind, not the smoking kind.

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