International Cannabis Business Conference

Playing the Greed Card in Ohio

Cartoon courtesy of Crain’s Cleveland Business

Andy Joseph, CEO of Apeks Supercritical, called Issue 3 a "disgusting display of corporate greed." Marijuana Majority chairman Tom Angell opined, "Voters won't tolerate this issue being taken over by greedy corporate interests." Even a New York magazine headline barked, "Willie Nelson's Crusade to Stop Big Pot." 

After Issue 3's loss at the polls yesterday by a 65%-35% margin, bashing of the investors who stood to gain financially from a victory continued. Tommy Chong tweeted, "Marijuana wealth must be shared by all. No monopolies." Canna-journalist Steven Wishnia posted at Facebook: "Pushing an initiative to give yourself a monopoly because you put up the campaign money is selfish, short-sighted and destructive."

I hear all of that, but I'm still wondering why the investors were branded the enemy in this fight to end marijuana prohibition in the Buckeye State. It wasn't exactly Wal-Mart throwing around a lot of cash. All of the investors were either independently wealthy or small business people. How did they come to be "Big Pot"?

Ethan Nadelmann: 'I don’t think a defeat in Ohio is significant. The upside of a win is much greater than the downside of a loss.'

Well, that's how the amendment's detractors were able to frame the issue. "Big Pot" was swooping in to take all the money from the little people who built the legalization movement. I didn't buy it and I still don't. That's what former NBA great Oscar Robertson, whose company makes cleaning products, had in mind? Or Nick Lachey, the Cincinnati-born singer? Or Youngstown fashion designer Nanette Lepore? Or Dayton anesthesiologist Dr. Suresh Gupta? Or NFL player Frostee Lynn Rucker? Or Robert George, who's company owns several restaurants? Or real-estate developers David Bastos Rick Kirk? Or Green Thumb Industries' Ben Kovler? Or former DJ Frank Wood? Or the great-great grandchildren of President William Howard Taft? Do they look like the faces of "Big Pot"?

The frenzy over Issue 3 stirred up by an unholy alliance between the Fraternal Order of Police, Gov. John Kasich, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio School Boards Association, the Libertarian Party of Ohio, the Green Party of Ohio and pro-pot activists led by former NORML board member Don Wirschafter built to a fever pitch by Election Day. Ending marijuana arrests in Ohio and setting up a commercial system for production and retail no longer mattered. All that mattered was beating "Big Pot." And they did.

So now what? It's back to the drawing board for Ohio. Like John Morgan and his supporters in Florida after losing the medical marijuana vote there in 2014, ResponsibleOhio is pledging to get back in the saddle and make another stab at legalization in 2016. “We will learn from what the voters have said tonight, and we’ll come back with a plan that works for everybody,” Jimmy Gould told disappointed Issue 3 supporters after the results came in. That plan will be closer to what Colorado, Washington and Oregon have done. No promising a windfall to investors. They'll have to compete for valuable licenses like everyone else.

That was Issue 3's major flaw. What may have worked for the casino industry (a previous vote in Ohio established an oligopoly for investors) did not resonate among legalizers, both within Ohio and across the country.

When I interviewed DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann for Freedom Leaf six weeks ago, I asked him what would be the impact of Issue 3 losing. He thought for a moment and replied: 

"When I first began working on initiatives almost 20 years ago, I used to worry about losses a lot more. Oregon lost in 2012 and won in 2014. If marijuana legalization is defeated in Ohio, it’s not going to be a surprise to a lot of people. Ohio is seen as a conservative state. So losing there would be no surprise nationally. The fact that it’s a 2015 low-turnout election means it can be explained in all sorts of ways. I don’t think a defeat in Ohio is significant. The upside of a win is much greater than the downside of a loss."

And so now we move on to the next state, whichever it may be.

Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of CelebStoner.com, editor-in-chief of Freedom Leaf, co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness, and the former editor of High Times.