Reefer Madness

Unlikely supporters, unexpected detractors, implausible alliances. ResponsibleOhio’s bid to legalize marijuana is democracy in action. On weed.
Illustration by Ryan Snook
Illustration by Ryan Snook

How often do you see an auditorium full of business suits anymore? On a college campus? During the summer? In the Midwest? On a sweltering day in June, Douglas Berman, the Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law at the Ohio State University, welcomed a well-dressed assemblage of lawyers, reporters, and public policy gurus to a symposium at the school’s Moritz College of Law. “This is a serious issue,” Berman said in his greeting. “Until recently it was difficult to get serious people to take it seriously. Until recently politicians and officials ignored or avoided it.”

The heavy matter before this heavyweight gathering was outlined in a 187-page report titled “Marijuana & Ohio: Past, Present, Potential.” The report represented the efforts of a task force that had been charged with examining what effect legalization would have on Ohio’s public safety, health, and economy. The panel discussions that followed Berman’s welcome mulled over findings about underage usage, job creation, THC impairment, and other potential consequences of legalizing a plant that is still classified as a dangerous Schedule I substance by the federal government. Berman, whose expertise is criminal law and sentencing, and who teaches a class dubbed “Weed 101,” reiterated how heartening it was to be able to have a sober hearing on these topics. The last three U.S. presidents, despite admitting to having used marijuana themselves, “declined to make this a focal point,” he said.

The task force that produced the report was led by a Republican, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, who—at a press conference that morning—told reporters, “Legalization is coming to Ohio. We need to accept the reality [that this] is going to happen.” The prosecutor wasn’t able to stay for the rest of the day, but Berman noted his leadership in absentia and remarked with wry restraint that Deters has not always been associated with progressive reform. Berman’s point: This is not a partisan issue.

ResponsibleOhio, the political action committee behind the Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Issue 3 on the November ballot), funded the work of the task force and made a donation to the OSU law school for organizing this event—facts that couldn’t help but cast a shadow over the objectivity of the whole affair. And even if the subject of marijuana legalization seemed, at that serious June symposium, surprisingly nonpartisan, it is hardly nonpolitical. In fact, ResponsibleOhio has launched one of the most colorfully contentious and well-funded ballot battles the state has seen in ages.

At the center is a group of well-placed, deep-pocketed investors—many of them from Cincinnati—who want to bring legal cannabis to the Buckeye State. Their challenge, and the job facing ResponsibleOhio in November, is simple. They need to succeed against two distinct sets of adversaries: People who don’t want to legalize pot. And people who do.

I’m patient zero on this adventure,” explains Columbus campaign strategist Ian James when we meet early in the summer. “We looked at what was happening around the country and realized that marijuana legalization was coming to Ohio.”

By “we” James means himself and his spouse and business partner, Stephen Letourneau. The two helm a political consulting group, The Strategy Network, where they’ve been involved in past efforts to end payday loan abuse, protect voting rights, and remove Ohio’s ban on same-sex marriage. At 49, James has the slightly scruffy quality of a grassroots organizer who knows his way around a human rights issue. But the most eye-catching entry on his résumé doesn’t have much to do with social justice: The Strategy Network was behind the $50 million campaign that legalized four Ohio casinos in 2009.

If James thought legalization was coming, he didn’t think it was going to arrive thanks to lawmakers, or via under-funded grassroots efforts. “We were seeing how things were moving forward in states like Colorado and Washington,” he says. “There’s some really well-intentioned advocates for medical marijuana [in Ohio] . . . but they weren’t getting to where they needed to be.”  And various legislative attempts at legalization of medical marijuana (which, polls show, the majority of Ohioans do support) have gone nowhere. Earlier this year, Ohio House Bill 33, which would have legalized marijuana for use with seizure disorders, was only able to get a meager nine sponsors. It never got a hearing. Meanwhile, James says with annoyance, a proposal to make “Hang on Sloopy” the state’s official rock song “sailed through the House” with more than two dozen names attached. “So it was eye-opening,” he says. “If you really want to do this you need a democracy approach.”

James was crafting that approach well before Sloopy left HB33 in the dust. And that’s where Cincinnati’s influence comes in. In early 2014, James reached out to local attorneys Paul DeMarco and Chris Stock, explaining the game plan that he and Letourneau had for legalization: Move ahead to legalize medical and recreational marijuana simultaneously—something no other state has done. They proposed to accomplish this through an amendment to the Ohio constitution, an initiative that would depend on a vote of the people, not the statehouse. Stock didn’t take to it immediately. The 40-year-old had some concern about “reputational risk,” he tells me as we sit with James in a conference room in the Scripps Center. (“As you may have noticed,” says James, gesturing to the reserved, crisply dressed Stock, “he’s kind of like . . . not me.”) And he wasn’t convinced by James’s contention that prohibiting marijuana was a lost battle in the war on drugs and that legalizing it would generate thousands of jobs and millions for the Ohio economy. But eventually Stock came around. “Whether or not I think on the front end that smoking marijuana makes sense, certainly the law right now isn’t helping anybody,” he says. He saw benefits to legalization—in public health and safety, and in the state’s economy. He signed on to the effort through the public policy consulting firm he owns with DeMarco, The State & High Group, and spent the better part of a year crafting the constitutional amendment that’s now on the November ballot as Issue 3.

Currently, 23 states and the nation’s capitol have legalized and/or decriminalized medical marijuana, and recreational use is legal in four states. Among the things Stock did in developing the amendment was to chart all the related laws in states and countries where the substance is legal. “At one point, it filled the whole side of the wall,” he recalls. Clearly, there’s more than one way to free the weed.

The approach taken by ResponsibleOhio, as the PAC came to be known, has been as inflammatory as a match in a stash box. The amendment is long (the 28-point summary that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine approved in March is 2,700-plus words), but here are the broad strokes: It  would make recreational (ResponsibleOhio uses the term “personal use”) marijuana sales legal to adults over 21 and medical marijuana sales legal to those with specified therapeutic needs. Adults would be able to purchase/transport/share an ounce of recreational pot and use it in private. The amendment also calls for a governor-appointed state commission to regulate the new industry; provides for nonprofit medical dispensaries; would create testing sites to monitor safety and potency; and specifies a tax (5 percent retail; 15 percent wholesale) on the non-medical sales. The tax income would be distributed directly to local governments: 55 percent to a “Municipal and Township Government Stability Fund”; 30 percent to a “strong county” fund to be used for health and safety services and economic development; and 15 percent to fund the work of the commission.

But the sticking point—and also the glue to the whole endeavor—is the provision that growing and wholesaling pot would be tightly controlled. Unlike Colorado or Washington State, where lots of licenses have been issued, in Ohio grow facilities would be limited to 10 pre-selected sites across the state (including Hamilton, Butler, and Clermont counties). The sites would be owned by 10 investment groups, each of which has pledged $2 million to bankroll the ResponsibleOhio campaign.

The rainmaker who gathered the investors was Cincinnati sports agent James Gould, pulling together a pool of individuals that includes New York fashion designer and Youngstown native Nanette Lepore (whose sister, State Representative Michele Lepore-Hagan, was one of the handful of names on HB 33); Columbus developer Rick Kirk, who has built student housing at University of Cincinnati; basketball legend Oscar Robertson; former Bengal Frostee Rucker; singer Nick Lachey; Gould’s sister, philanthropist Barbara Gould; and others. In a statement about her decision to be part of ResponsibleOhio, Lepore talked about the potential economic benefit to her embattled hometown; Barbara Gould and Robertson have cited their desire to see marijuana legalized for medical reasons; and Kirk has talked about the money that the state spends on “ineffective marijuana laws.”

When I talk with Woody Taft—an investor in the Butler County site, along with his brother, Dudley Taft Jr.—he runs through similar boilerplate reasons for getting involved: economic benefit; public safety; compassionate care for those with medical conditions that could respond to use. But there’s something else: “I think that in this country that prizes freedom and liberty, it is wrong for people who smoke marijuana, which is less addictive and harmful than other things, [to] have to do this illegally. To me,” says the great-great-grandnephew of a president and Supreme Court Justice, “that’s un-American.”

 Click through our gallery for photos of legalization proponents:

It probably comes as no surprise that “un-American” is also the label that detractors are putting on the ResponsibleOhio plan.

If Issue 3 passes, a ganja-preneur could apply for a license to open a retail store—as long as a given precinct doesn’t vote to bar retail sales, which it can, and the business isn’t within 1,000 feet of a school, public library, day care center, or house of worship. He or she could have an operation that manufactures edibles for adults—lozenges or gummy bears or Easter Peeps or whatever cannabinoid conveyance the commission chooses to allow. Or they could earn a livelihood in one of the many other jobs that, ResponsibleOhio claims, would germinate. But on the ground floor of Ohio’s future multi-million-dollar industry would be just 10 licensed farms.

“From a public safety and public health perspective, that’s where the state’s interest is at its apex,” James says. And limiting the grow operations is in the state’s interest since, he contends, “it’s a lot easier to catch a rogue operator among 10 than 1,000.”

Stock concedes that the limited-site requirement is reminiscent of the 2009 constitutional amendment that legalized casinos in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Toledo. “But that’s where [the similarity] stops,” he insists. For one thing, he says, this new industry has the potential for greater economic impact than casino gambling. Plus, the commission could license more growers if consumer demand is high; bad operators could lose their licenses; and even if there are only 10 grow operations, they’re still forced to compete with one another, bringing down prices, quashing the black market, and benefiting consumers in the time-honored all-American fashion.

Except that for many people—whether they use marijuana or not—the idea of limiting the number of growers doesn’t jibe with the free market system. And it’s certainly not the “let a thousand flowers bloom” vision that activists have been striving for. Individual “enthusiasts” and groups such as Ohioans to End Prohibition (OTEP) and Citizens Against ResponsibleOhio (CARO) exploded in opposition to the amendment, lighting up social media with their tweets, their memes, and their disdain.

Under criticism, ResponsibleOhio tweaked the amendment to allow an individual to grow four plants at home for personal use. But whoever thought that peace offering would work must have been smoking something. As one activist told me, the idea that those four flowering plants would win people over was insulting. “They’re trying to deceive the marijuana community.”

It’s risky to generalize about the “marijuana community” in Ohio. But given that the stuff is still illegal, a word like secretive might come to mind. And from outward appearances, Brad White, with his button-down shirt and his executive MBA from the University of Missouri, does not fit the mold. For one thing, when he decided to volunteer as a consultant for Ohioans to End Prohibition, he alerted his boss at Procter & Gamble, where he’s in brand management, to make sure there were no objections to his impending activism. Secretive, he’s not.

When I meet him for coffee in early summer, he explains that he has been a proponent of legalization ever since he got over being “brainwashed by D.A.R.E as a kid.” He says his concern is the way that ResponsibleOhio’s plan cuts out entrepreneurs with its pre-determined sites. Ohioans to End Prohibition is a pro-marijuana group that wants to put its own legalization plan on the ballot in 2016—one that wouldn’t have the same grow limitations as Issue 3. White wasn’t involved with the beginnings of OTEP, but when I first spoke to him he was trying to help them rebrand and focus on a free market message rather than simply dissing ResponsibleOhio.

“You have to regulate,” he acknowledges, though he points out that other states do that without giving away the biggest slice of the pot pie. “Where you make the money is in the growing end,” he says. Resistance to ResponsibleOhio “is about giving everyone a fair opportunity to compete.”

The week before our conversation, White had gone to a meeting of the Miami Valley chapter of NORML for a discussion about the ResponsibleOhio plan. Most of the people there, he says, agreed that a free market would be ideal. “But they feel this is the only opportunity to get it on the ballot.”

It’s the “just legalize it now” sentiment, and Katherine Grimm has heard it before. She’s even said it herself. Grimm, owner of Clever Gent Brands, a product company in Colorado, and a blogger on the subject, says that there’s something in every piece of legislation that isn’t ideal. “But in every other case, I would prefer to see the measure pass and be improved in future iterations than to see it fail,” she says. “ResponsibleOhio is the first cannabis bill where I just can’t support the particular initiative.”

Grimm says that growers in other states are paying attention to the battle in Ohio. “It’s a worrisome model,” she says. “This initiative says that marijuana is going to be like any other business: If you have enough money you can do whatever you want.”

Sam Kamin, a professor at Sturm College of Law at University of Denver, was one of the more blunt panelists at the Ohio State symposium in June. (“There are lots of good reasons to do away with prohibition,” he told the attendees. “Getting rich is not one of them.”) When we spoke by telephone he was equally frank about the Ohio plan, which he pointed out is almost diametrically opposed to the Colorado approach, where anyone deemed qualified to grow could be licensed.

“There are good reasons to have fewer growers,” he says. “But it’s not evident why these particular [people] were selected. Apparently they were selected because they were the force behind the initiative.” That doesn’t necessarily make them the right people to run this new industry, but, he notes wryly, “they get points for ingenuity.”

I don’t smoke anymore,” says Frank Wood. “But unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale a lot when I was young.”

If you’re looking for somebody with ingenuity, you could do a lot worse than Frank “Bo” Wood, the mastermind behind WEBN’s glory days as the “lunatic fringe” of radio; the man who looked out over the Ohio River and thought . . . Fireworks! Since leaving the radio business in 1999, he’s invested in an assortment of projects, some wallet-slimming disappointments (Tracks, a music magazine: “Seemed like a good idea at the time”); some fiscally-fit successes (his money was behind PatientPoint—that flat screen in your doc’s waiting room playing medical factoids and soft-sell pharma ads).

He’s known Jimmy Gould for 40 years, but he hesitated to get involved initially. Not because he especially feared the social opprobrium (remember WEBN in the ’70s and ’80s?), but because it was a financially risky venture. When he finally agreed to become a majority holder in the proposed Clermont County site, he was all in—learning about the agriculture of his finicky future crop, the facility requirements (his “Tree Frog Farm” could be, he says, as big as 100,000 square feet), LED grow lights, hydroponics, and everything else that will go into a big grow operation.

Yes, he’s in it to make money. But he has named his investment group the Darwin Growth Fund, a nod to what he sees as the evolutionary nature of the whole endeavor. “One, it would create a whole lot of jobs,” he says. “And the second thing: it’s the right thing to do. I think we have a horribly failed drug policy [that] invites selective enforcement. Anybody who wants to smoke marijuana is smoking marijuana. Why not regulate it, tax it, create jobs and a whole new industry, and benefit the government?”

Wood understands there’s anger over the plan’s exclusivity. But he seems a bit irked that, at 73, after all those years of bringing radio irreverence to his hide-bound hometown, he’s now being characterized as a money-grabbing robber-baron. “I’m hardly an industrialist,” he says. “I thought the way this thing was drawn up, it made sense. I don’t look at it as a monopoly.” He understands the resentment to some degree, but is put off by the putative illogic of the Responsible- Ohio naysayers. “How many electric companies are there in Ohio? How many people sell workman’s compensation insurance? There are lots of industries where there aren’t a lot of players. The idea that 10 fat cats will get rich on this…” He sighs. “There is an element of risk,” he adds, comparing it to the end of Prohibition in 1933. “Not every brewery became Anheuser-Busch. Lots of them failed.”

He also thinks the 10-investor-group plan is a convenient attack point for people who will never agree to legalization under any circumstance—people who have a moral objection to making weed available to adults for their private enjoyment. And for them he again invokes America circa 1933. “Life went on” after Prohibition was repealed. “And nobody’s thinking of banning alcohol anymore.”

The horse race began in earnest in late June, when state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the Ohio Initiated Monopolies Amendment for the November ballot. Introduced by Representatives Ryan Smith of Gallipolis and Michael Curtin of Columbus, it would prohibit a commercial “monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel” from being stitched to the constitution. And it would bar adoption of any amendment on the November ballot that legalized selling or using a federal Schedule I substance. And it would take effect immediately upon passage.

Curtin, a journalist who covered the statehouse for the Columbus Dispatch before entering politics, serves on a constitutional modernization committee that has spent two years ruminating about the way that moneyed special interests are able to use constitutional initiatives for their exclusive benefit. Although the committee hadn’t actually done anything about addressing the problem, he says “it is fair and accurate to say that [ResponsibleOhio] lent a sense of urgency to the discussions.” The quickly-written-and-passed House Joint Resolution 4 (Issue 2 on your November ballot) was the upshot.

Curtin is a Democrat who won’t say if he supports or opposes legalization per se, but he points out Ohio allows direct statutory initiatives; that’s how, for example, the anti-tobacco forces banned cigarette smoking in public places in 2006. “If these marijuana guys had used the statutory initiative route rather than the amendment route,” he says, “I would not be in this fight.”

But he is in it, and he says there will be an aggressive campaign to push Issue 2 and defeat Issue 3. He promises that citizens will get a close look at Issue 3’s details, one provision of which, he says, would be to allow more than 1,000 retail stores. “More than McDonald’s, Starbucks, and the state liquor stores combined,” Curtin notes. “It’s a very extreme plan. I think it’s going to fail, and I think it’s going to fail miserably.”

Which brings up one of the more quixotic aspects of the wrangling over ResponsibleOhio. Politics makes strange bedfellows. Also hyperbolic ones. In Curtin’s view, the ResponsibleOhio provision that allows for one retail outlet per 10,000 Ohioans would mean a head shop on every corner, and that’s a reason to oppose it. But talk to anti-RO/pro-marijuana activists and you’ll hear that ResponsibleOhio’s restrictions would make it virtually impossible to find a place to open a store—and that’s a reason to oppose it.

After a contentious struggle to collect and validate the needed signatures, ResponsibleOhio got on the ballot, and in mid-August, formally launched its campaign with a bus tour to Ohio’s 88 counties.

The No on 3 campaign kicked off the same day with fanfare—but with significantly less funds than their opponents. Even so, the early stage was aggressive. There’s a website that focuses on three points: The “protected monopoly” that would be created; the amount of marijuana that would “flood” the state; and the danger edibles present to children. No on 3 is headed by Curt Steiner, a veteran political consultant and GOP strategist, who is orchestrating the roll-out of diverse detractors by giving them breathing room to articulate their specific displeasures. For example, Ohio’s Libertarian and Green parties have come out against Issue 3 by decrying the cronyism of the ResponsibleOhio plan—but also reaffirming their support for legalization. The Ohio Chamber cited vague but galvanizing “numerous and serious workplace concerns” as the basis of its opposition. And the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association (including Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center) focused its opposition on edibles that could be ingested by kids. Although, significantly, the strongly worded statement from OCHA also carefully identified legalization of non-medical marijuana as their beef.

If Berman of OSU was hoping a wide-ranging, serious discussion of marijuana legalization would precede Issue 3 to the polls in November, he may be disappointed. Certainly Nicole Scholten of Northside is.

Scholten, a former Cincinnati Public Schools teacher, is the mother of a profoundly disabled 11-year-old named Lucy. Among Lucy’s neurological complications are seizures—100 or more a day. Some research has shown that marijuana strains rich in CBD (the non-buzz-producing compound cannabidiol) can lessen or stop seizures when pharmaceuticals have failed. So Scholten and her husband are part of Ohio Families Cann, a nonprofit that’s lobbying to make medical marijuana available for kids like her daughter. She says last spring’s House Bill 33 (the one with a paucity of sponsors) wasn’t perfect, “but we were hoping to get a hearing in the year. We were hoping for a conversation.”

Instead, she says, “what we have been talking about is whether or not people should be allowed to smoke pot and whether or not people should be allowed to profit from it.” Scholten does not look upon ResponsibleOhio’s limited-grower plan with favor. “There’s no guarantee that those folks have to grow high-CBD marijuana,” she points out. “I’d like the conversation to at least include patients like my daughter.”

A nonprofit, The Ohio Rights Group (ORG), has written an amendment that would legalize medical marijuana, but it has been struggling to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in 2016. Earlier this year, ORG claimed that ResponsibleOhio infiltrated their group and compromised their efforts—a complaint that the state’s election board threw out last spring.

Attorney Chris Stock points out that the investor at the Licking County site has announced his intention to grow medical strains. Still, odds are that any thorough discussion of medical marijuana will probably be lost in campaign histrionics, along with thoughtful public discourse about mental health research findings, as well as public safety, racial bias in prosecution and sentencing, and any of the dozens of other collateral concerns.

Indeed, much of the fireworks around Issue 3 concern ResponsibleOhio’s tussles with Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted—first over validating the signatures needed to get the amendment on the ballot, then over the ballot language Husted submitted, which ResponsibleOhio has appealed as inaccurate, biased, and worded to misguide voters. It’s the sort of inside-baseball donnybrook that can cause voters’ eyes to glaze over—especially in an off-year election.

And then there’s this: Shortly before this story went to press in early September, rumors surfaced that other growers might ultimately be able to use land at the 10 designated sites. When I reached out to Stock to elucidate this new wrinkle, he told me that it could be possible. “The facilities will be rolling out various business strategies that incorporate artisan growers into that [individual] model,” he said. According to the way ResponsibleOhio has crafted their amendment, each site will have different owners and they will determine their own business plans. But within that, he noted, there will be “opportunities for anyone to come and be an independent contractor.”

So why not explain that before, when the battle began over the 10-site exclusivity? “People start paying attention to elections after Labor Day,” Stock said.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the herky-jerky way this campaign has rolled out, some hearts and minds have begun to change. In August, Brad White, the P&G professional with the entrepreneurial gene, ended his work with OTEP. He didn’t see how that marginally-funded effort could realistically get a legalization initiative on the ballot in 2016, and so he grudgingly entered the “just legalize it now” mindset. The reaction to his decision in social media “hasn’t been great,” he says with some chagrin.

He certainly hasn’t embraced all of the ResponsibleOhio brand, however. As the summer came to an end, the campaign made waves with its mascot: Buddie, a costumed character with a marijuana bud as a head. It was a move so misguided that a writer at noted it “might be the worst idea in the history of marijuana politics.” When White tweeted that Buddie “sends the wrong message to voters,” you could almost see his eyes roll.

Whatever voters decide, White is focused on putting together a group of entrepreneurs who have an interest in marijuana-related businesses; basically, the beginnings of an Ohio cannabis trade association. He points out that the state already has the makings of an industry—businesses like Cannasure in Cleveland, which specializes in insuring legal dispensaries, and FunkSac, which has developed a childproof, smell-proof, tamper-evident container. White thinks there’s plenty more potential for ancillary services—some of which, an interested observer might notice, Cincinnatians do particularly well. Services such as consulting, branding, and marketing. “Businesses you can scale and take to multiple states,” he says. States, of course, where marijuana is legal.

“Even if I don’t love everything” about the ResponsibleOhio approach, White says, “I want to be part of this industry.”

Facebook Comments