Clearing the Smoke

Everything you need to know about the marijuana legalization proposal slated for November’s ballot

click to enlarge Drugs and money, hallmarks of a quality ballot amendment
Drugs and money, hallmarks of a quality ballot amendment


ast week, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted announced that marijuana legalization effort ResponsibleOhio had succeeded in its push to collect the more than 300,000 signatures it needed to put its proposal for a state constitutional amendment on the November ballot. If voters pass the amendment, it would legalize marijuana for anyone over the age of 21, but would limit commercial cultivation to sites around the state owned by the group’s investors. Here’s everything you need to know about the group’s proposal, its backers and its critics.

How would it work?

In November, voters will decide whether to amend Ohio’s constitution, legalizing marijuana and allowing ResponsibleOhio to set up 10 marijuana farms across the state owned by the group’s backers. Three of those farms will be in the Greater Cincinnati area. All the farms would have to be at least 1,000 feet from a school, public library or daycare center.

Anyone over 21 would be able to legally purchase and smoke marijuana, and 1,150 state-issued vendors’ licenses similar to liquor licenses would be available to sell the drug and products containing it. However, individuals would not be able to start their own marijuana farms for profit.

Originally, the proposal also stipulated that individuals would not be legally allowed to grow the crop at all. ResponsibleOhio changed this part of the proposal earlier this year after backlash from other marijuana legalization groups. Now, individuals could grow up to four plants at home with a $50 annual license. Those plants would be for personal use only, with stiff legal penalties for selling the crop illicitly.

The state would regulate the production of the drug through an agency similar to the Ohio Liquor Control Commission, testing it for safety and placing a 5-percent retail and 15 percent wholesale tax on it. Those taxes would be split between municipal and state governments.

Who is ResponsibleOhio?

The legalization effort is spearheaded by a small group who organized the initial signature drive, courted investors and drafted the ballot proposal.

The group includes Executive Director Ian James, who has led promotional efforts for the campaign. James was also instrumental in promoting Ohio’s constitutional amendment legalizing casino gambling. That amendment, structured much the same way as ResponsibleOhio’s proposal, allowed investors to build four casinos around the state, including one in Cincinnati. James runs political consultancy group The Strategy Network and has also put together campaigns for raising the minimum wage, marriage equality and other generally progressive issues.

Cincinnati attorneys Chris Stock and Paul DeMarco, two more key players in the initiative, drafted the actual ballot proposal language.

Another Cincinnatian, financier James Gould, was responsible for recruiting ResponsibleOhio’s 20 investors, who contributed $20 million to the ballot initiative campaign.

Those investors include a number of others with Queen City ties, including basketball great Oscar Robertson, former Bengal Frostee Rucker, philanthropist and investor Barbara Gould (James Gould’s sister), former 98 Degrees member Nick Lachey and businessman Woody Taft, member of the highly-influential Cincinnati political family that birthed president William Howard Taft and former Ohio Governor Bob Taft.

What do critics say?

ResponsibleOhio’s plan has been controversial for a few different reasons. Other marijuana legalization advocates say the group’s plan amounts to a monopoly on marijuana production in the state and that it’s simply a ploy designed to make a few select investors more money.

“Ian James convinced a bunch of his friends to write big checks by dangling the Pablo Escobar fantasy in front of them,” Sri Kavuru, president of Legalize Ohio 2016, another legalization effort, said in an interview with BuzzFeed recently. “But these are not cannabis people. I doubt any of them have ever even smoked marijuana before.”

The issue has been incredibly divisive among marijuana advocates. Last month, the former president of Ohio’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, one of the longest-running marijuana advocacy organizations, was ousted from the group over disputes arising from his support for ResponsibleOhio.

NORML says Rob Ryan’s dismissal stemmed from his abrasive behavior, not the fact he was supporting the initiative itself. NORML’s national office supports the legalization drive. But the incident underlines just how heated the debate has become.

Meanwhile, some state officials echo trepidation about the proposal’s monopolistic tendencies and say legalizing marijuana will also boost crime rates and addiction in Ohio. Gov. John Kasich, Attorney General Mike DeWine, State Auditor Dave Yost and others have balked at the proposal.

All are Republicans opposed to most, if not all, kinds of marijuana legalization. Some business groups have also signaled their opposition for the law. The Ohio Manufacturer’s Association, for example, has come out against the proposal, saying marijuana legalization could affect workplace safety.

OMA represents more than 1,240 businesses throughout the state. The group is part of a larger coalition,called Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies that also includes the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Association, the Ohio Farm Bureau and a number of other organizations.

The Ohio Green Party and the Ohio Libertarian Party, generally in support of marijuana legalization, have also voiced opposition to the proposal.

What do supporters say?

ResponsibleOhio’s backers tout the proposal’s projected economic benefits. They cite a study headed by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters that says ResponsibleOhio’s legalization plan could produce up to $1 billion in economic activity in the years after it passes.

Deters says he wasn’t paid for that study, but he has professional ties with some of ResponsibleOhio’s founders. Deters’ study also suggested that legalization could cut down on the state’s black market for marijuana, possibly reducing drug-related crime.

Backers have seized on these points.

“Ohio is my home, and as a resident and local business owner I am proud to be part of a movement that has the potential to create jobs, reinvigorate the local economy and improve the safety of our communities,” investor Nick Lachey said in a statement supporting the proposed amendment. “Passage of this proposal will result in much-needed economic development opportunities across Ohio, and update the state’s position on marijuana in a smart and safe way.”

Other supporters tout the moral benefits of the amendment, including the legalization of medicinal marijuana and call it a step away from controversial law enforcement policies and practices associated with the war on drugs.

Some point to a related measure, called the Fresh Start Act, that would forgive certain marijuana-related convictions for those who were caught with the drug in the past. That measure would delete records of convictions for incidents that are currently illegal under Ohio law, but which ResponsibleOhio’s proposal would make legal.

ResponsibleOhio’s plan has a number of organizations and individuals signed on in support, including many local unions, Cincinnati State Community College President Dr. O’dell Owens and former Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher.

How does it stack up to other states?

Currently, ResponsibleOhio’s proposal is fairly unique among marijuana legalization efforts. 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.

Currently, 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.

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. Ohio could make more. ResponsibleOhio’s plan would tax marijuana at 15 percent, much more than Colorado’s tax rate. That monetary boost could also come with a boost in drug usage, however.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that marijuana usage in Colorado jumped from 10 percent to 12.5 percent between 2010 and 2013. Two other federally funded studies found that usage did not rise among teenagers, however, and at least some of the usage spike may have been from medicinal users. ©

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