Polman: Why Legal Pot Went Down in Ohio

Dick Polman

The off-off-year elections have yielded some noteworthy results — Chris Christie's Jersey legislature has gotten bluer, Kentucky has gotten considerably redder — but election night's most fascinating tally was posted in Ohio, where voters refused to rebrand their state as Ohigho.

At first glance, it would appear that the marijuana legalization movement was dealt a crushing blow. A ballot measure that would've made Ohio the fifth legal state got clobbered by a nearly 2-1 margin. That might sound puzzling, given the fact that nearly 60 percent of Americans want weed to be legal, and that at least five more states will try to go that route in 2016. What explains the landslide loss in bellwether swing-state Ohio?

Crony capitalism and strange bedfellows.

In other words. the politics of pot can be very nuanced. A motley coalition of foes coalesced to kill legalization. The usual anti-drug groups — and the older, whiter voters that typically dominate low-turnout off-off-year elections — were joined on the No side by pot legalization people who hated this particular ballot measure. Because there was something transparently sleazy about the whole thing.

It was, in fact, a new iteration of pay-for-play politics. A tiny group of rich investors put up roughly $25 million to get the measure on the ballot and advertise for its passage. If it had passed, they alone would've reaped the economic windfall — estimated at $1 billion a year — because they alone would've grown the marijuana on 10 pre-determined farms that they alone would've owned.

That's what a lot of legal marijuana activists have been dreading all along — a corporate takeover, a movement co-opted by crony capitalists. Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, recently warned, "The values of Woodstock have been eclipsed by the values of Wall Street ... For anyone who thinks legalization is about pot anymore, they need to look at Ohio and see it's not about pot, it's about money."

Marijuana legalization is inevitable — albeit slowly, state by state — but most legalization leaders want it done the right way. Ohio has no regulatory regime, because it has no experience with medical marijuana; the ballot measure would've legalized weed medical as well as recreational — a perfect scenario for the corporate investors. Pot reformers say that big farms are more likely to cultivate the crop with the help of pesticides and other common agricultural chemicals. Fairly or not, these fears helped fuel the No vote in Ohio.

Another pro-legalization reformer, Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority, applauds the Ohio defeat: "Voters won't tolerate this issue being taken over by greedy special interests. Our ongoing national movement to end marijuana prohibition is focused on civil rights, health and public safety, not profits for small groups of investors." 

Which is precisely why so many reformers detested the Ohio effort. They thought it was bad politics — that the ballot measure played into the hands of the anti-pot leaders, who could then claim that greedy corporate interests are trying to hook Ohio's kids.

So much for this year. But there are plans for another Ohio ballot measure next year, this time without the crony capitalism, and its prospects for passage will be enhanced by the size of the presidential-year electorate. And at least five states — or as many as a dozen — will put legalization to a vote, because the social justice arguments are so strong (the people jailed for pot are disproportionately minorities), and because states can reap lots of tax revenue (just ask Colorado). 

As pot legalization expert John Hudak of the Brookings Institution reportedly says, "Anyone who suggests that Ohio's (2015) decision tells us anything about the success or failure of initiatives in 2016 is just blowing smoke."

But those thwarted Ohio investors — one of whom was a descendant of Ohio-born President William Howard Taft — will surely be followed by others. A company called Privateer Holdings, birthed in the Silicon Valley, has already persuaded Bob Marley's family to license the dead reggae star's name and image for a national marijuana brand. And a tech millionaire named Jamen Shively has spoken publicly about creating a pot shop chain modeled on Starbucks. (No doubt with better munchies.)

So with billions of bucks on the table, how long can the reformers freeze out the suits?

Dick Polman

Dick Polman is a national political columnist and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Philadelphia.