Here's how lopsided the vote against Ohio's controversial marijuana legalization bill was last night: the poll results started trickling in at 9 p.m.. Only 30 minutes later, with less than 40 percent of precincts in, the Associated Press called it: the amendment had failed.
Voters rejected the measure with 64 percent opposed and only 36 percent in favor. It was defeated in every single one of Ohio's 88 counties, some of which voted against the bill by huge margins, according to preliminary numbers: 55 percentage points in Holmes County. 60 in Mercer. 65 in Putnam.
The bill was likely doomed to fail from the get-go for a variety of reasons. It was an off-off election year, where voters are older and more conservative. Ohio has never exactly been a bastion of marijuana culture. And most crucially, the bill would have created a state-mandated oligopoly on the production of marijuana, with a handful of the measure's wealthy backers as the primary beneficiaries. This drew sharp criticism from nearly all quarters, including national marijuana reform groups who either refrained from endorsing the measure or did so only while holding their nose.
These groups wasted no time in distancing themselves from the initiative last night. Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said "it has been clear for some time now that Americans want legal marijuana; it is also abundantly clear that most voters want the free market, not an artificially restricted one dictated by special interests, to govern this emerging marketplace."
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said "the lopsided defeat of Issue 3... will likely discourage investors in other states from backing any marijuana legalization initiative that contains a similar [oligopoly] provision. And that’s a good thing."
Aaron Smith, director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, called the measure "a deeply flawed, monopolistic approach to marijuana reform."
One reason national reform groups were so hesitant to back the measure, and so quick to denounce it, is that the measure seemed to confirm legalization opponents' worst fears about the rise of "Big Marijuana" -- an heir to the tobacco industry of old, focused on maximizing profits at the expense of public health. Playing right into this fear, the initiative's backers sent a marijuana-themed superhero mascot named "Buddy" -- reminiscent to many of Joe Camel -- on a tour of Ohio college campuses.
Legalization opponents have capitalized on these concerns. As Josiah M. Hesse wrote in Politico earlier this week, "the Ohio legalization effort has been a godsend to anti-marijuana groups." Last night, a jubilant Kevin Sabet of Project SAM seemed to confirm this on Twitter:
The "98 Degrees" is a reference to one of the measure's celebrity backers, former boy band star Nich Lachey. In an email, Sabet added "this has galvanized our folks in terms of what the winning message is. If we make this about all the money to be made - which is why SAM started in the first place (to spread the message of Big Pot) - then we win. We're going to keep pounding that."
In the end, in other words, the deeply flawed Ohio reform effort may have had the perverse effect of strengthening legalization opponents' hand.
But there are some silver linings here for legalization advocates. The fact that a blatantly profit-motivated legalization measure was so roundly defeated by voters suggests that the public will not tolerate another Big Tobacco. And after last night's huge defeat, it seems unlikely that any similar measures will go on ballots in the future. Had the measure succeeded, and inspired other wealthy investors to try similar schemes in other states, the chorus of concern over Big Marijuana would have likely intensified.
And the measure itself was like nothing that came before or after. No other state-level ballot measures either already passed or in the works for next year include anything like the controversial Ohio oligopoly provision. So as the Brookings Institution's John Hudak notes, "anyone who suggests Ohio’s decision tells us anything about the success or failure of initiatives in 2016 is just blowing smoke."
This story was updated with remarks from Kevin Sabet of Project SAM.