Let’s put this on the table first: CityBeat supports the legalization of marijuana. It’s high time (no pun intended) that Ohio discarded its antiquated anti-weed laws, the enforcement of which disproportionately affects people of color and those in low-income communities. In 2010, four African-Americans in Ohio were arrested for marijuana possession for every one white person arrested, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union.
That said, we believe Issue 3, put forward by ResponsibleOhio, isn’t the way to do this. Yes, the ballot initiative would legalize the purchase and possession of marijuana for anyone over the age of 21 and create more than 1,000 liquor license-like permits for the drug’s retail sale. And, yes, a related measure called Fresh Start would also retroactively eliminate penalties for some convicted of marijuana offenses if passed. These are excellent ideas in and of themselves.
But there are better ways to legalize marijuana, and we believe the price ResponsibleOhio asks is too steep: legalization at the cost of creating a small, powerful group with exclusive rights to grow marijuana commercially.
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The group’s proposed constitutional amendment would limit the commercial growth of marijuana to 10 grow sites around the state owned by about 50 ResponsibleOhio investors. Some of those investors — including Cincinnatians Frostee Rucker, Nick Lachey, Oscar Robertson, Woody Taft and Barbara Gould — have made their identities public. Some 30 others have not.
ResponsibleOhio did make concessions to home growers after outcry from legalization advocates, and its proposal would now allow the cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use (with a license). But the group’s proposed structure would still create what amounts to a state-sanctioned monopoly on commercial marijuana growth. That setup has given rise to a number of detractors ranging from conservative state officials like Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to progressive fellow legalization advocates like Ohioans to End Prohibition. State lawmakers have even drawn up their own constitutional amendment, Issue 2, to forbid changes to the state’s constitution that create monopolies. We encourage voters to also vote against that amendment, which is rife with imprecise language and could create major complications. Political experts say it’s unclear what will happen if voters somehow pass both Issue 2 and Issue 3 in November, and a protracted and embarrassing legal battle would likely ensue.
Like ResponsibleOhio’s diverse range of critics, we’re very wary of a permanent constitutional amendment creating a marijuana monopoly.
The setup is similar to the constitutional amendment that created the state’s four casinos. ResponsibleOhio organizer Ian James also worked on that campaign to legalize gambling in the state. Ohio voters passed that constitutional amendment in 2009 under the premise that tax revenues from those casinos would be a boon to local, county and municipal government funds, and increase money for schools and other public projects. So far, tax receipts from those casinos have been less than anticipated, however.
States with legalized marijuana have seen some increase in tax receipts. According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, the state brought in $44 million in taxes from marijuana in 2014. We agree that Ohio could see a similar windfall from legalization. But we think an open market with more growers will create more business and more taxes than a limited monopoly.
There are also questions about whether marijuana businesses would get a tax loophole under the ResponsibleOhio plan. Some tax experts say the language of the legalization ballot initiative leaves open the possibility that marijuana businesses wouldn’t be liable for certain business income taxes. This language should be more clear so that no loopholes exist.
Supporters of the marijuana amendment say it’s necessary to limit the number of grow sites to ensure a safe, quality product. They say all 10 sites under investor control will be state-of-the-art and produce top-of-the-line marijuana that is easily tracked by the state.
There are other ways to accomplish this goal, though, and by ResponsibleOhio’s line of reasoning, the state should also create constitutional monopolies for a select group of 10 cattle ranchers, or tomato farmers, or poultry producers. State laws requiring grow sites to meet certain safety, quality and transparency standards could be very effective and would not create a permanent constitutional amendment that limits a very lucrative marijuana cultivation market solely to ResponsibleOhio insiders.
Finally, there’s ResponsibleOhio’s moral argument: that Ohio voters must pass their amendment if they want to end the state’s archaic marijuana laws and the terrible disparity in their enforcement. Again, there are other ways to accomplish this vital goal, and some cities in the state, including Cincinnati, have taken steps to this end. Last year, Cincinnati passed an ordinance that allows residents to expunge certain marijuana convictions received under a past, overly harsh city law. Some 85 percent of those convicted under that 2006 law were black. It’s a small step, but a step in the right direction that shows attitudes are shifting in the legal and legislative communities. If ResponsibleOhio’s supporters are serious about ending law enforcement disparities around marijuana, focusing on pressuring state lawmakers to change existing laws and reduce law enforcement disparities is the best place to start.
Currently, ResponsibleOhio’s proposal is unique among marijuana legalization efforts. Medical marijuana is legal in some form in 21 states and the District of Columbia, though only four — Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon — have legalized recreational use of the drug outright. Other states, including California and Nevada, are poised to vote on more free-market forms of legalization in the next two years.
Other states that have legalized the drug have taken a more free-market approach, granting a much higher number of licenses for growing and selling the crop. In Colorado, there are more than 1,000 licensed growers of marijuana.
We recommend Ohio do the same, bypassing ResponsibleOhio’s amendment and beginning work to take up an open approach to legalization.
Multiple groups are working to put just such an amendment on the ballot in 2016. The wait would be worth it.