WARNING: Hell has frozen over. Ohio, situated right about where America’s rust belt meets the Bible belt, is flirting with full marijuana legalization. The effort is being spearheaded by ResponsibleOhio, a marijuana legalization campaign sponsored by a well-funded investor group based in Columbus. The group has raised $36 million from 10 investors throughout the United States.
In other states to date, grassroots activists, typically working in partnership with a national legalization organization like NORML or the Marijuana Policy Project, have gained the voter support necessary to pass medical marijuana or pro-pot voter referendums. In this respect, Ohio is setting itself apart and gaining national news, especially among those who strongly favor or oppose full legalization of pot.
Can They Really?
Pot fans should hold off on that celebratory toke, however. ResponsibleOhio, which technically is a Political Action Committee, or PAC, has already collected more than 550,000 signatures, more than the necessary 306,000 by July 1. Passage of the law will come down to how effectively the group can educate and influence voters between now and November 3. Also, because the 2015 election in Ohio will feature no major national or state races, it’s considered an “off-off-year.” This typically results in older and more conservative citizens actually casting votes. Despite this, ResponsibleOhio says it has the resources to inform the voter base and win majority support for the bill. It also believes that activist organizations and legalization proponents, even early holdouts, will support it.
ResponsibleOhio’s Executive Director, Ian James, said his organization will have
“…the only [marijuana] issue on the ballot and the only one that has the resources to win.” He added, “To vote down the only possibility you have to legalize marijuana would be foolhardy.”
The group predicts that the legal sale of medical and recreational cannabis in the state could generate $554 million in tax revenues by 2020.
Critics have called this figure overly optimistic, citing the fact that Colorado in 2014 generated only about 10 percent of this figure, or $53 million, in taxes. It should be noted, however, that 2014 was the first year of Colorado’s legalization. If this bill becomes law in Ohio, 2020 would mark four years of the law having been in effect. Also, Colorado has a population of only 5.4 million, versus Ohio’s 11.6 million residents.
According to Chrissie Thompson, writing for Cincinnati.com:
“The group is putting another $20 million into developing 10 marijuana farms across the state—anchoring the effort in Southwest Ohio, with three farms in Greater Cincinnati and one just north in Montgomery. The exclusive growing market has been called everything from a ‘monopoly’ to a ‘cartel’ by anti-marijuana politicians and traditional marijuana supporters alike.”
The good part of this pending legislation is that it would bring both medical marijuana, even for youths, and fully legal recreational pot smoking to the Buckeye State, a midwestern bastion best known for being a swing state in presidential elections, top-shelf college football, and more Amish residents than the state of Pennsylvania. Citizens 21 and older would be permitted to possess up to one ounce of cannabis with no medical exemption or license necessary. They would also be permitted to grow up to four mature (flowering) plants.
The investment group behind ResponsibleOhio—and its associated independent companies—would maintain a lock on the cultivation of cannabis in their 10 facilities across the state. However, more than 1,100 “retail and manufacturing” licenses would be made available to the public.
These facilities might produce everything from joints and ounce jars to stealthy edibles and canna-candy. Often, these retail and manufacturing businesses would literally be packaging and branding companies. However, unlike the regulated but open market in Colorado, these companies would be limited to sourcing their herb from the 10 authorized production facilities.
An important aspect of this legislation is the positive economic impact it would have. Ohio has been one of the worst states in terms of unemployment and a sluggish recovery. Any stimulus to its economy would certainly be a good thing, especially if it helps fund fire stations and the repair of Ohio’s pothole-riddled roads (as outlined in the bill, which can be read here).
The taxes derived from the production and sale of legal marijuana would benefit a rust belt state that has seen residents leaving for good jobs in other areas. Like many regions, Ohio is also suffering from an increasingly aging population of baby boomers who, if living on retirement, produce no income taxes. Despite a hefty licensing fee, entrepreneurs and marijuana advocates will have the opportunity to open retail and manufacturing facilities in which they can satisfy a burning need in their communities—while making an honest (if not highly regulated) living.
Ohio Marijuana Control Commission
This bill would also create the Ohio Marijuana Control Commission (OMCC), comprised of seven members, all of whom would be appointed by the governor. Given that the governor of Ohio is currently a fairly conservative Republican, this is, for many, an unpleasant reality. Here’s the language of the amendment: The OMCC would “regulate the acquisition, growth, cultivation, extraction, production, processing, manufacture, testing, distribution, retail sales, licensing, and taxation of medical marijuana, marijuana and marijuana-infused products and the operations of marijuana establishments, and the growth and cultivation of homegrown marijuana.”
The amendment also calls for special taxes. Manufacturing and retail facilities would be required to pay a 15 percent tax, while consumers would be hit with a five percent tax on top of standard Ohio sales tax (these rates are lower than those in Colorado and Washington). Militant activists may scream about this, but it isn’t that different from how alcohol and tobacco are regulated and taxed across the nation.
According to the language of the amendment, the OMCC “would also serve as a clearing house for scientific and medical research on medical marijuana, marijuana and marijuana-infused products.” This could, in a perfect world, be very good. It would be beneficial to all parties, including consumers, if the Commission encouraged and maybe even funded plentiful academic and corporate research into the medical efficacy and strain specificity of cannabis.
This would, in theory, allow the 10 cultivation facilities to continually improve their product, something very much in the best interest of pot buyers and patients. If fully legal recreational herb was established in the state, there would surely be plenty of private and public research and analysis conducted on the output of the 10 ResponsibleOhio production facilities.
Cultivation + Retail
The ability to grow up to four plants is one of the most democratic and egalitarian aspects of this bill. While the right to legally grow any number of plants in a traditionally conservative state like Ohio would be amazing in and of itself, some activists and chronic pot smokers will predictably want higher limits. However, this limit is actually higher than those in Colorado and Washington, D.C. (three mature plants), equal to Oregon’s recreational limit, and close to recently legalized Alaska’s allowance of six plants. Washington State, which, along with Colorado, was among the first two states to legalize marijuana for recreational consumption, has actually prohibited cultivation.
It must also be recognized that this would be a limit for flowering plants. Thus, depending on the final language of the law, growers could potentially keep a dozen or more veg-stage plants alive, choosing only the best and healthiest to go into full flower and be counted among the four. If cultivated properly and continually, this limit could easily serve the needs of all over-21 adults living at a residence, producing pot (or medicine) with a regularity, affordability, and quality impossible on the black market.
However, those who choose to grow at home won’t be able to just jump right in. The amendment, which would define a relatively highly regulated industry in Ohio, would require a $50 per year licensing fee and registration with the state. Many libertarians who fear big government will see just more red tape and taxes. However, given the expense of street cannabis (sometimes in excess of $100 per quarter ounce in the state), $50 per year and the cost of a few grow lights, nutrients, and electricity is a powerful incentive to help eliminate the criminal elements that prey on a black market. Not to mention saving regular pot smokers hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year.
If passed, this law would funnel money into taxes and consumer spending, stimulating the legal economy instead of funding criminals who may also produce and sell highly addictive hard drugs like meth and crack. If properly executed and managed, a legalization scheme of this type could significantly reduce criminal activity, decreasing hard drug addiction and offering an alternative to alcohol and its negative physical manifestations (and their associated financial burden to society).
The retail and manufacturing licenses that would be sold wouldn’t be free or even cheap. RMSs, or Retail Marijuana Stores, would be required to pay a $10,000 annual licensing fee. This is similar to liquor licenses regulated by most states. The registration fee is a realistic business expense that helps enlist more professional and properly funded individuals and organizations. While sure to frustrate some “mom and pop” grassroots activists, this registration fee is a way of helping ensure the participation of legitimate companies with sufficient funding to properly serve customers.
The amendment also provides language specific to medical patients. It creates “licensed not-for-profit medical marijuana dispensaries (‘MMD’) to dispense medical marijuana to patients with debilitating medical conditions and to their Commission licensed caregivers with a medical marijuana certification issued by the patient’s current treating physician…” Registered medical patients would be able to purchase cannabis at wholesale prices.
The biggest reason that some Ohio and national marijuana activists are understandably critical of the efforts of ResponsibleOhio is what would be its monopoly on marijuana production. However, to average pot-smoking Ohio citizens, who currently grow and consume marijuana illegally—many of whom have been convicted and jailed for it—the legislation proposed by ResponsibleOhio would bring significant reform and multiple benefits.
In reality, the manufacturing facilities would be owned by different individuals and companies. According to CNNMoney, “the group stresses that the growing facilities would be operated by separate companies that would compete on price and quality.” On its website, ResponsibleOhio states, “There is no coordination between them, they will be trying to make money by selling the best goods at the best prices to stores, dispensaries, and manufacturers.” Thus, it would be a closed market in terms of not allowing just anyone to begin the mass cultivation of cannabis to sell (technically, it sounds like a limited franchise). However, it would not be a monopoly and, in theory, involve no price fixing due to the competition between the 10 authorized manufacturing companies.
Keith Stroup, founder and legal council of NORML, recently published a blog in which he addressed the issue of venture capital-backed voter referendums. He wrote, “Different people will come to different conclusions. I continue to feel we should keep our eye on the prize of legalization, and not get sidetracked fighting over who will profit from legalization. After all, we live in a free enterprise system and we should not expect legal marijuana will be different.”
The details of this bill, including the licensing fees and tax structure, will probably evade the average Ohioan who votes this fall. For those who are tuned into the details, it will be interesting to see those who will support and oppose this controversial, but groundbreaking, ballot initiative—and why. This amendment to Ohio’s Constitution would, after all, allow residents to legally grow, purchase, possess, and smoke marijuana.
That’s no small thing. Especially for the Buckeye State. Because, after all, not even Seattle or Los Angeles has it that good.
— Gooey Rabinski
Gooey Rabinski is a counterculture writer who has contributed to magazines such as High Times, Cannabis Culture, Skunk, Heads, Weed World, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself. He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana (2015 Edition), available on Amazon Kindle.