Wednesday morning ushered in a new chapter in the battle over legalizing pot.
On Tuesday, voters rejected a controversial marijuana legalization measure at the polls in Ohio, despite polling showing support in Ohio for marijuana legalization. Voters balked at the specifics of the ballot initiative, which would have created an oligopoly on marijuana production for a small handful of the initiative's wealthy donors.
The initiative faced an uphill battle from the start. The first stumbling block was the nature of the ballot measure itself. It would have essentially written a marijuana oligopoly into the state's constitution, with the measure's wealthy backers as the only recipients of licenses to grow marijuana commercially. That didn't sit right with many of the national advocacy groups that have backed successful legalization measures in other states. The Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project refrained from endorsing the Ohio bill. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws gave it a tepid 11th-hour endorsement, as did Law Enforcement Officers Against Prohibition.
"What was most offensive about [the Ohio measure] was that they wanted to make it a constitutionally mandated oligopoly in perpetuity," said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's clearly the case that the oligopoly provision turned people off."
The measure was so opposed by Ohio's legislature that it wrote a competing initiative that appeared on the ballot — one that would explicitly outlaw voter-approved monopolies and oligopolies like the one the legalization measure would create. That measure ultimately passed. Although it was rendered moot this year by the failure of the legalization initiative, the anti-monopoly amendment does effectively mean that similar legalization efforts will not find their way onto Ohio ballots in coming years.
Finally, holding the vote in an off-year election meant facing an electorate that's typically older and more conservative than a presidential electorate. Opinion polls show that seniors and Republicans are the two groups least favorably disposed to marijuana legalization.
The defeat of the measure is good news for people on both sides of the legalization debate worried about the co-option of the legalization debate by corporate interests -- the threat of "Big Marijuana." In an e-mailed statement, Kevin Sabet of the anti-legalization group Project SAM said, "This proves the anti-legalization movement is alive and well. It means that when people understand this is about money -- not pot -- they are turned off. And since all legalization efforts are essentially about money, you can be sure we'll be reminding voters in other states about the true intentions of legalization advocates."
For their part, legalization advocates are hoping to put the Ohio battle behind them and focus on a number of high-profile legalization measures before voters, and possibly state legislatures, next year. "This was about a flawed measure and a campaign that didn't represent what voters want," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority, a pro-legalization group. "It’s a shame Ohio voters didn’t have the opportunity to consider sensible legalization in 2015. Hopefully it’ll only be another election cycle or two until a more responsible team secures enough funding to put a better initiative on the ballot."
He added, "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."
The Ohio experience may serve as a warning to lawmakers at the state and federal level grappling with legalization questions. Drug policy experts have cautioned that if lawmakers fail to act on marijuana reform and leave changes up to voters to decide, the outcome could be flawed legislation that doesn't do as much as it could to prevent possible harms associated with legal marijuana -- like the Ohio measure.
Given the trends in national polling on marijuana legalization -- support was nearly 60 percent in the latest Gallup poll, up sharply year-over-year -- it doesn't appear the issue will be going away any time soon. Proactive legislatures in Vermont and Rhode Island may pass marijuana legalization measures next year. Lawmakers in other states might want to take note.
The Brookings Institution's John Hudak, who's written extensively about marijuana legalization measures, had this to say: "The 'big' takeaway from tonight’s rejection of legalization is this: don’t run a controversial marijuana initiative in Ohio in an off-off year. Anyone who suggests Ohio’s decision tells us anything about the success or failure of initiatives in 2016 is just blowing smoke."
For now, the future of legal marijuana in Ohio remains uncertain. It's unclear whether ResponsibleOhio, the initiative's backers, will try again with a different measure in 2016. The group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.