A growing concern

ResponsibleOhio puts marijuana on November ballot

By Mike Truax

Photo: ResponsibleOhio’s ballot initiative would allow individuals to have up to four marijuana plants

In recent years, proponents of marijuana legalization have shaved and started wearing suits, literally and metaphorically. They hired professional public relations firms, and eschewed the decades-old stereotypes that made it so easy for moderate voters to write them off as slackers. Outcasts. Burnouts. Tree-hugging hippies.

Mainstream proponents of marijuana legalization began to talk of tax revenues, regulation and licenses. (And “mainstream proponent of marijuana legalization” became a phrase that could be written without irony.) They made the conversation technical. Boring.

And they started winning.

Just eight years ago, around 32 percent of the population was in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana. Since then, the issue has seen a meteoric climb in popularity, with over 50 percent in favor of legalization in 2014. In November, Alaska and Oregon became the third and fourth states to legalize recreational marijuana.

Now the issue has come to the king of swing states, courtesy of a group called ResponsibleOhio, which brings a proposal with a few twists to draw in wealthy supporters and increase the appeal to the general public. The measure is the first attempt at legalization here with a chance to win.

“It certainly wasn’t personally on my radar five years ago as a voter,” says Lydia Bolander, spokesperson for the ResponsibleOhio initiative. “It would not have occurred to me that this would be possible in this time frame but I think part of why Ohio plays such an important role nationally is that we are such a diverse representation of national political issues, national conversations, and we are a very diverse state.

“If something is happening on a nationwide scale, you’ll see it reflected in the political conversation here in Ohio.”

A brief overview: The ResponsibleOhio initiative would legalize marijuana for personal and medical use for adults over 21 years old. Ten commercial industrial grow sites would provide all of the marijuana for sale, recreational and medical. All of the marijuana must pass through testing facilities before reaching commercial stores and medical dispensaries, with a sin tax added to the stages between growth and purchase. Individuals would be allowed to have four plants, with a small license fee. The proposal is still collecting signatures, and needs over 300,000 in order to appear on November’s ballot.

It’s the 10 commercial grow sites, with wealthy investors already identified, that is the unique key to ResponsibleOhio’s legislation, and the aspect that has drawn notice from the right and created opposition on the left.

If there are still stereotypes in this conversation, they’ve been subverted. The pro-marijuana, anti-discrimination left and pro-business right have come together to form a powerful coalition.

“I think we’ll see throughout this year that Ohioans of all ages will be affected by this policy and they’ll be interested in learning about it and interested in supporting it as well,” Bolander says. “I think from a libertarian or conservative perspective, people want there to be more freedom. They don’t like the idea of excessive restrictions and people limiting their choices.”

Marcie Seidel, the executive director of the Drug-Free Action Alliance, a group that opposes the measure, says this measure is different than the others that have been proposed across the country.

“This one is very based on individual investors who are looking at this issue to make money,” Seidel says, “as opposed to people looking to, shall we say, allowing people to smoke with impunity, or allowing medical pieces of it. This is really 10 people that are looking to create a cartel-like arrangement that will be embedded in our constitution to have them make money on what they hope will be a flourishing marijuana market in Ohio.”

That’s something that makes some decades-long supporters cringe. Big business! Regulation! Profiteers!

The ResponsibleOhio initiative actually started to the conservative side of where it is now. Originally, it did not include any allowances for plants grown at home, and the proposed taxes were even higher than they are now. The initial backlash to the ResponsibleOhio proposal, more virulent from the left than from the right, coerced the group to add allowances for four homegrown plants and to lower the proposed taxes.

Bolander takes umbrage at the comparison that the ResponsibleOhio proposal is a legalized monopoly or oligopoly, like the casino interests that led the drive to allow gambling in the state.

“They aren’t just sort of an oligopoly where you have a small group of people with massive control and no competition,” she says. “I think it’s very much the opposite where they’re one piece of a supply chain, but they have to compete amongst each other. They’re still taxed, they’re still regulated and anybody in the market can also produce their own market for personal use as well. There are many ways in which the supply can be diverse and competitive.”

Still, Facebook is dotted with groups like “Citizens Against ResponsibleOhio” – the URL includes “stopthemonopoly” – “Vow To Say NO 2 ResponsibleOhio” and “Responsible Ohioans against ResponsibleOhio.” All attack ResponsibleOhio from the left. Each group’s page has over 900 likes. There’s a fracture within Ohio NORML, a long-time proponent of legalization; while some, including the president of the organization, are behind the initiative, others believe this is a Trojan horse for limited competition and a stunted industry.

The split could be significant. Vocal and virulent opposition from within the interest group may have cost the vote for California’s Proposition 19 in 2010, not by splitting the voters, but by stunting the energetic base that might have done the grassroots campaigning.

One of the pro-legalization opposition groups, Responsible Ohioans (read: A-N-S) for Cannabis, proposes 24 plants per person and up to four people, or 96 plants, in a household, plus taxes at the prevailing rate, like other non-food commodities. The 24 plants per person over 18 years old has been revised down from 99 plants and 99 kilograms per person. They had originally allowed for a person to keep nearly 220 pounds of marijuana … for personal use.

ResponsibleOhio’s proposed amendment language includes a number of other provisions that cause some general legalization supporters to recoil:

Workplaces may still drug test for marijuana, and are not required to allow it.

Individuals must pay for an individual license to grow, and the number of plants is comparatively low.

The proposal includes restrictive zoning codes, regarding placements near schools, churches and daycares, and a limited number of licenses.

The political and social calculations – such as involving professionals at all levels and securing big-money, big-name investors up front – have made the ResponsibleOhio initiative if not better, then more realistic. Bubble voters may take some comfort in the tougher zoning restrictions of the proposal.

But that’s the curse of many initiatives by (relatively) centrist groups like ResponsibleOhio: Any proposal that stands a chance of being passed by the general electorate is going to infuriate some of those on the long tail of the normal curve.

Whether ResponsibleOhio in particular is successful in this election, one thing is clear: In recent years, the public has become increasingly more tolerant of recreational marijuana legalization in general. Even 10 years ago, nationwide support hovered around 32 percent. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, the general population favors legalization 52 percent to 45 percent against. Millennials lead the charge with 63 percent in favor of legalization, while only 27 percent of the Silent Generation – those born between the mid 1920s and early 1940s – agree. (Elections in odd years, such as the November 2015 ballot ResponsibleOhio hopes to reach, draw older generations much more strongly than the younger.)

“As you watch this, they’ve run an incredible social marketing campaign and slowly have done this through normalizing marijuana by calling it medical marijuana,” Seidel says. “It had so much money behind them that they could change the way a culture thinks, simply by using the marketing techniques and the research we know about how to change people’s minds. They’re masters at it. I have to give them all of the credit — they are masters of what they’ve set out to do, because they’ve done it.”

And, by most accounts, the sky hasn’t fallen in the states that led the recreational legalization charge, Colorado and Washington. Colorado residents still support the measure, passed in 2012 and effective in 2014, by slightly larger measures after one year of legalization.

One of the public issues brought to light in Colorado is the inconsistent regulation of marketing and labeling of edibles. At a glance, some appeared to be candy or other non-dosed goods. Newspapers were dotted with stories about wild inconsistencies in THC from batch to batch, and the lack of guidance on appropriate amounts to consume.

“I think there’s been a lot of scare-tactic type publicity about the type of product sold in other states,” Bolander says, “And we’ve tried to make sure that in our amendment we’re providing ways to address those concerns and make sure that people know that the products they’ll be able to buy are completely safe.”

The states with legalized recreational marijuana have seen unique challenges, however, stemming from the conflict with federal law. Banks are not willing to work with marijuana businesses, due to fear of federal charges under RICO statutes. Recreational – and medical – marijuana stores and dispensaries operate in violation of federal law, leading to an uneasy détente that could end at any time with a raid by federal officials. In some cases, notably medical marijuana dispensaries in California circa 2010, federal prosecutors ignored guidance from Attorney General Eric Holder to not go after state-legal operations.

Those political challenges are with the legal and technical aspect of legalization, however, as opposed to the social aspect.

And now Colorado faces a lawsuit from Oklahoma and Nebraska, which are challenging aspects of Colorado’s legalization that they believe has led to an influx of marijuana into their states. Oklahoma and Nebraska aren’t challenging the legalization itself, but Colorado’s ability to regulate the industry. The case, submitted to the Supreme Court (as conflicts between states are), could bring the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, and the federal government’s responsibility to enforce it, back into the spotlight.

Marijuana is not rare, foreign, or hard to get now, even as it’s illegal. One of the biggest difficulties with having this debate, Bolander says, was getting the anti-drug opposition to understand that a ‘No’ vote doesn’t mean their communities are drug free.

“It’s illegal now, and yet we know that it’s accessible and in many places in our state it can arrive at your house faster than if you tried to order a pizza,” she says.

Medical marijuana is much more palatable to the voting public, legal in 23 states (plus Washington D.C.), containing more than half of the American population. About half of those states legalized medical marijuana by popular vote. It faces a lower level of that same federal-vs.-state tension that looms over recreational marijuana. A majority of Ohioans support medical marijuana by immense margins: In early 2014, a Quinnipiac poll found 87 percent in favor of it, with support from 78 percent of Republicans.

Seidel emphasizes her group’s belief that there may be beneficial components in marijuana plants, but that “marijuana in the raw form is not medicine,” particularly without extensive trials by the FDA.

“Rigorous trials, placebo studies with it … None of that happens, so it’s a crapshoot, or perhaps Russian roulette, when someone has a serious condition and or immune system that’s compromised,” she says.

“That’s not how we make medicines in the United States – we’ve gotten away from the folklore and the snake-oil doctors of days gone by. We’re much more advanced than that. I think we should be headed that direction instead.”

Demographic trends are moving in the direction of legalized marijuana, both recreational and medical. This summer and fall, Ohio, as one of the country’s most reliable bellwethers, has a chance to set the tone for the debate nationwide.

For more information on ResponsibleOhio, or to sign the petition, please visit responsibleohio.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Truax at MikeTruax@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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