Understanding Ohio’s Issue 3 Defeat

Columns - Guest Column

Ohio’s marijuana- legalization initiative was contentious even for legalization proponents. Here’s what the industry can learn from it.

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Ohio weathered a very controversial election this year, to say the least. Despite seemingly unlimited funds available from investors in the Issue 3 campaign — which was backed by the group ResponsibleOhio and which set out to legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana — the specific provisions outlined in this initiative were unpopular, even amongst longtime pro-legalization activists and organizations.

Even those who supported the initiative because they felt it would stop the arrest of nonviolent marijuana consumers years earlier than may happen otherwise did so with much-warranted reservations about the self-serving provisions contained within the proposal’s language.

A strong divide existed between members and leaders of Ohio NORML, as well as at the national NORML offices and at many other legalization organizations, causing much friction within the national marijuana movement.

The perceived endowment of a monopoly or oligopoly (based on the inclusion in the proposed constitutional amendment of 10 predetermined commercial grow sites) was at the heart of the friction and what seemed to influence Issue 3’s almost 2-to-1 defeat.

Some even questioned whether Issue 3 would have given the initial investors (who would own the grow sites named in the amendment) the ability to decide who gets what product at what price, with no mention of disallowing vertical integration, and nothing in place to stop the 10 growers from owning and only providing for their own dispensaries. Many details were not elaborated upon in the initiative’s verbiage, with key regulations left to be decided by a state-appointed commission, leaving questions such as these lingering among voters and the industry.

But aside from the initiative’s controversial elements, many exciting and lucrative opportunities for businesses to flourish within the marijuana industry in Ohio still would have existed. It would have opened the door for retail outlets and associated businesses, such as grow supply vendors, horticulturists, accessory/paraphernalia merchants, bud trimmers and maybe even ancillary businesses.

Could Some Expanded or Better-Defined Market Segments Have Helped?

When examining precinct voting data and noticing the extremely low number of votes for Issue 3 in our most agriculturally supported communities, one must wonder if the exclusion of industrial hemp from the legislation may also have played a role in its demise.

Also, many patients expressed concern about the lack of a more clearly defined medical program. States that legalized medical marijuana first have encountered challenges dealing with two regulatory systems. Many medical growers felt like they were being shut out when new recreational regulations were introduced. Some shops even dropped their medical licenses because the recreational market promises greater profits, and today there are only about half the number of medicinal-only dispensaries remaining in Colorado.

Also, it is worth noting that marijuana legalization’s “major funders” are no longer contributing to medical-only initiatives. Though Issue 3 included both medical and recreational use, it is better to have both well-defined in an amendment proposal to avoid conflicting regulatory systems. Issue 3 may have been better received with a clearer definition regarding the proposed medical program.

Whatever the major factors at play in Issue 3’s failure, as Keith Stroup, NORML founder, wrote in a blog called “Lessons Learned from the Debacle in Ohio” (from the NORML Blog Feed), “… the real losers are the marijuana smokers in Ohio, who will continue to be arrested for years to come — nearly 20,000 each year — when a better-drafted and more professionally run campaign could have ended prohibition and stopped the marijuana arrests.”

What We Can Do In The Future

All we can do now is to learn from history and move forward. So, what can we do?

  • Try to ensure that activists’ and industry voices are heard. Join the discussion about any legalization ballot effort by contacting the promoter. Let them know that by engaging with NORML and other reform organizations, they will have a better chance of successfully reforming marijuana laws, as well as having a lucrative industry.
  • Build coalitions with other activist groups and lobby our representatives to encourage medical and hemp bills to be introduced. With talk about our legislature considering the introduction of a medical bill, it is very important that we do not settle for a CBD-only or extremely restrictive bill. Also, a hemp bill is being developed for introduction in the state legislature, with co-sponsors from both parties. Schedule appointments with legislators and give them information on medical research and the multiple uses of hemp to get better, more-informed bills.
  • Guest columns in local newspapers are instrumental in enhancing public awareness and sharing valuable statistics. Let our legislators know that Ohio should be getting in on the ground floor. The voting public is not against legalizing marijuana, and a super-majority supports medical — almost 90 percent — in Ohio.
  • There are also Ohio groups working on local initiatives like the one that passed in Toledo. Toledo residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of a citizen-led initiative (the “Sensible Marijuana Ordinance”) to abolish penalties for possession and cultivation of marijuana. People would not be jailed or fined for amounts up to 200 grams. Signatures are also currently being collected for the “Cleveland Sensible Marijuana Ordinance,” as well as an “Ashland Sensible Law Reform.” (Visit OhioNORML.org for more information.)

The marijuana legalization conversation has never been more prevalent than it is now. The failed drug war does more harm than good to our families, communities and resources, and we have an urgent need for a well-informed initiative to be developed and supported by a unified group of organizations, legislators and voters.

About the Authors: Cher Neufer founded Ohio NORML in 2001, was president until 2013, vice president from 2013-2015, and then treasurer. She has a Master's degree in Guidance and Counseling, was a teacher from 1974-1981 and then a Senior Programmer Analyst until retiring. She was also treasurer and secretary of the Ohio Patient Network. A native Ohioan, Danielle Vitale-O'Brien is a longtime activist, mother of two, and seasoned business professional. She's an active member of various Cannabis related nonprofit boards of directors. As Vice President of The Human Solution International, she brings awareness to the many unjust criminal cases against nonviolent cannabis defendants and prisoners, and the power of jury nullification. As a member of the board and membership director at Parents 4 Pot, she helps bring a voice to children affected by Cannabis prohibition. Danielle is also President of Miami Valley NORML and Secretary of Ohio NORML, as well as founding member of the International Women's Cannabis Coalition. She advocates full time against Cannabis prohibition with a focus on families and is published monthly in NW Leaf Magazine, with articles also included in Vegas Canna Mag, and Skunk Magazine, where she was honored to appear in the 2015 Women of Weed issue.