4/20 series: Marijuana legalization profiteering attempted in Ohio

Not long ago, the prospect of legalizing recreational marijuana in my home state of Ohio seemed about as preposterous as Clevelanders rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the world turns, sometimes faster than we expect. Today, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, Ohioans support legalizing recreational marijuana 52-44 (along with overwhelmingly supporting medical marijuana, 84-15).

That hardly means that legalized marijuana is sure to become a reality in the state, of course. In state politics as in federal, inertia is a powerful force—all the more so when the party holding the reins of power is against change, as most Republicans in Ohio are. But the really remarkable thing is just how seriously national momentum for marijuana reform has carried over into this rust belt state’s politics. There is now a well-funded campaign to amend the state’s constitution in November 2015 to become the fifth state to allow the sale of marijuana for recreational uses, and its defeat is far from a foregone conclusion. Ohio would go from zero to sixty, full prohibition to legalized commercial markets, remarkably fast.

Now, in a very deep way, this campaign is unlike the ones that succeeded in pushing through legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington in 2012 and Alaska and Oregon in 2014. Rather than being driven by idealistic advocates of liberty or social justice, the “ResponsibleOhio” campaign now underway is, more or less, backed by people whose eyes turn into dollar signs when they look at the dawn of the age of legal marijuana. Their business plan is as follows:

  1. Highlight the responsible middle ground of a legalized, regulated regime in which commercial grow operations are strictly limited to ten exclusively licensed grow sites.
  2. ?
  3. Profit.

But these are no underwear gnomes. Step 2 is actually Step 0: own the sites beforehand, thereby effectively walking into a state-protected monopoly. And it is already complete.

That is simply too audacious to have any chance, right? Remarkably, this scheme already worked once with the vice in question being gambling rather than marijuana. In 2009, Ohio voters approved the Ohio Casino Initiative, which allowed one casino each for Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Toledo. They are now up and running, with the backers of the initiative already returning their investment many times over and in a position to reap a large portion of legalized gambling’s revenues for years to come.

As the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes, there is at least an argument to be made (though not necessarily a convincing one) that casinos ought to be treated this way because they are a high overhead business. By contrast, marijuana growing can be extremely cheap, making it hard to see why the practice—if legalized—should be so closely restricted such that large profits will accrue to just 10 growers.

I am hardly breaking any news here. Various Ohio media have covered the similarities between the casino campaign and the ResponsibleOhio marijuana campaign. Marijuana reformers are well aware of the influx of money to support a cause they believe in, but in a manner they find objectionable; many will hold their nose and vote yes, as they are loathe to let any opportunity for liberalization of marijuana laws get away, and the amendment was revised to allow non-commercial homegrows. ResponsibleOhio itself it at pains to rebut perceptions that it is trying to usher in an anticompetitive regime, though it is maddeningly vague on the key issues about how the sites would be designated (see “Will Ohio’s marijuana industry be open to the public?” in the FAQ). It will be up to Ohioans to sort out whether the proposed structure is better understood as a legitimate reform or an attempt to deform the system for private gain, and whether other reform proposals might better serve the public’s interests.

My purpose here is simply to call attention to ResponsibleOhio’s campaign as a sign of the times: it is no longer considered loony to suggest that recreational marijuana is a conventional vice on par with gambling or liquor. Indeed, so banal has this point become, assuming its political power has now become a means to other ends altogether. In this brave new world, those who have painstakingly built respectability for the marijuana reform movement over decades should be wary of their many new fair weather friends.