Ohio chose not to legalize cannabis this Election Day.
Hard to believe, I know. But it’s true: in a Midwestern state that has resisted medical cannabis for nearly two decades, during a non-presidential/non-congressional election year, with a legalization scheme seemingly designed to offend pretty much everyone, after a tin-eared campaign which played into some of the opposition’s most persistent stereotypes… a plan to legalize cannabis was rejected by Ohio voters.
Given the foundation described above, what could possibly have gone wrong? Not everything, but plenty.
The Plan: A group of investors bankrolled the effort to write and campaign for Issue 3, to the tune of $40 million or so. These funders then wrote themselves into the proposed law as a de facto oligopoly controlling the only ten land parcels where cultivation for retail sales could take place. Advocates have decried the high entry costs for medical cannabis licenses in states like Massachusetts (what mom and pop store has $500,000 to throw in escrow?); far too many saw the blatant money grab in Ohio as a bridge too far.
The Strategy: Off year elections mean voter turnout will be lower, and older. Experienced cannabis policy advocates knew that gaining off year traction for a contentious issue in a state like Ohio was a long shot at best. Issue 3’s backers apparently thought they knew better.
The Campaign: Issue 3 proponents clearly did understand that in an off year, they would need to get out the younger voters. To do so, they created a campaign mascot, “Buddie,” a green-headed cartoonish superhero right out of the Project SAM playbook. Buddie will have a place in history, as marketing and poly-sci professors add him to their lecture examples of ‘tone-deaf fails of epic proportion.’
The Cannabis Community: Cannabis policy reformers across the nation split deeply on the Ohio issue. Some advocated holding one’s nose and voting yes, then working to fix the law down the line. Others, including Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project, remained carefully neutral. Only NORML endorsed Issue 3, and they left the pom-poms at home when they did.
So the outcome in Ohio is not much of a surprise. Nor is it a setback for the greater cause of legalization. It’s not even much of a loss for the millionaire proponents of Issue 3. They’re still millionaires, though perhaps humbler and wiser ones.
Speaking of humbler and wiser, Ohio shows that it’s time for legalization opponents who throw around the term “Big Marijuana” as a scare tactic to chill out. It’s never been entirely clear what the term means, but Issue 3’s drafter-funders tried to enshrine themselves into state statute as an oligopoly, and used a cartoon nug as a mascot. That seems to fit the bill. Issue 3 showed that, with the exception of a bunch of super-rich investors, pretty much no one is in favor of “Big Marijuana.” So let’s put that one to bed, shall we?
And it looks as though there might be a silver lining, as Ohio officials today signaled that they may finally be ready to move on a medical cannabis program.
(Don’t even try with the “medical is a stalking horse for legal” argument. Although it was over-weening and ill-executed, Issue 3 would have legalized medical use at the same time as adult use. Much of its support came from patients and their families in Ohio who don’t want to be felons simply because they use a natural botanical therapy. Also, if the legislators above are to be believed, it looks like legalization might have served as a stalking horse for medical use in this case.)
So where are we, post-Issue 3? We’ve learned a lot, mostly about what not do in order to end the criminalization of cannabis users, especially in the heartland. Ohio’s legalization movement will carry on, and five or so more states will vote for regulated adult-use cannabis in 2016. Nick Lachey and his millionaire friends will continue to, well, be millionaires. Cannabis advocates will carry on the often brilliantly intense philosophical debates that Issue 3 sparked. Policy wonks will keep chewing the data.
We will keep on keeping on, most of us.
It seems that the only real losers here are the thousands of seriously ill patients and responsible adult users of cannabis in Ohio who hoped and voted for a change this past Tuesday. They all still risk arrest for growing or possessing or using this plant. Their children’s debilitating diseases won’t wait for some “right” version of legalization. Their cannabis will keep flowing from sources unknown, unregulated, untested.
They will be waiting, until 2016, or 2018, or maybe 2020, to legally access this plant.