Ohio's head-scratching marijuana fight: Why do some progressives oppose legalization?

The state will vote this week on a measure to legalize the drug. In a close contest, many liberals actually oppose

By Bob Cesca
Published November 2, 2015 12:58PM (EST)
  (Reuters/David Mcnew)
(Reuters/David Mcnew)

While Ohio politics are normally unremarkable unless in a presidential election year, the midwestern swing-state will vote this week on the "Marijuana Legalization Initiative, Issue 3," a ballot measure that would legalize recreational and medicinal marijuana use. This is a controversial constitutional amendment that's almost evenly split across supporters and opponents. The most recent polling shows supporters barely outpacing opponents by one percentage point, 44 to 43.

If approved by voters, the amendment would allow adults older than 21 to buy an ounce of pot. Additionally, it would "allow a person with a license to grow, use and share up to eight ounces of homegrown marijuana, plus four flowering plants." In terms of commercial sales and distribution, Issue 3 would establish a roster of 10 farms that would grow pot to be shipped to and sold at around 1,100 retail stores across Ohio. The state would establish a regulatory commission to patrol the growing and sale of the product. And finally: "Anyone with a certified debilitating medical condition could use medicinal marijuana."

Ohio has failed for two decades to legalize medicinal marijuana, despite the treatment's proven efficacy for treating a wide variety of ailments and symptoms. Naturally, Ohio's far-right legislature won't even convene a hearing to consider a law to support medicinal, and definitely not recreational marijuana. Meanwhile, liberal and libertarian groups have struggled to get a ballot measure approved for decades now, but have invariably failed. It’s expensive to do so, and it’s the seventh biggest state in the country, at nearly 12 million people, a challenging reality for acquiring the requisite petition signatures, but one that would make legalization in Ohio an incontrovertible game changer.

Now that legalization has become popularized nationwide, with other states moving forward to decriminalize pot possession and sales,in spite of a federal ban, it seems like the time is ripe for something to happen in Ohio as well. Not only would it greatly reduce the annual $120 million required for law enforcement focused on pot growers and dealers, but throughout 2016 it would force presidential candidates from both parties to address the issue during the hundreds of visits to the state they'll make throughout the campaign.

Legalizing marijuana in the seventh largest state in the union is a no-brainer, and it's this close to becoming a reality. The only thing standing in the way of Issue 3 passing, beside the vote itself, is the existence of Issue 2, which would, according to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, cancel out Issue 3.

So, why on earth are liberal groups like the Ohio Green Party opposing Issue 3?

Well, the amendment, progressive opponents claim, would sanction a monopoly on the growing and sales of marijuana. It's unclear how 10 growers constitutes a monopoly, exactly, but the state's Green Party, for example, seems to think so. The party is urging its supporters to vote in support of Issue 2 and against Issue 3, since Issue 2 would cancel out Issue 3. Suffice to say, it's a rather confusing legal dynamic for ordinary voters to understand. (Simply put: If you vote in Ohio and you support pot legalization per Issue 3, vote "yes" on 3 and "no" on Issue 2.)

Elsewhere, Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann, normally a vocal supporter of legalization, said recently, "Damn. This thing sticks in my craw. Ten business interests are going to dominate this thing?"

The Marijuana Policy Project's (MPP) Executive Director Rob Kampia believes it's a major blunder for the initiative to be included on Tuesday's ballot because off-year elections are generally low turnout elections, subsequently younger voters who would otherwise vote for the amendment will likely stay home. There's some validity to this concern since support for legalization dwindles with older voters, specifically just 29 percent support among 70-year-old-plus voters who typically turn out in off-year elections.

None of that should supersede the reality that it's either this amendment or nothing, perhaps for a long, long while. It's a massive gamble for liberal groups who usually support legalization measures. The opposition to monopolies is a valid concern, but one that shouldn't stand in the way of a broader legalization effort. Trust-busting has never really been a priority among marijuana legalization activists who pitch legalization based solely on cutting into the senseless drug war and decriminalizing a substance that's far less harmful than many legal drugs, including booze. Nevertheless, private citizens with the proper licensing can still raise four plants, and to possess up to eight ounces of pot -- which is actually a lot of marijuana -- not an agriculturally-sized crop, but absolutely not an insignificant supply of weed.

As with the Affordable Care Act before it, which activist groups on the left tried to kill due to its lack of a so-called "public option," liberals are again allowing (pardon the cliche) the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Again, millions of dollars would be saved due to reduced law enforcement efforts, while thousands of Ohioans would be spared from obscenely overblown prison sentences for possession. By the way, black men are currently four times more likely to face prison on cannabis charges. Maybe we should ask them about whether 10 growers constitutes a deal-breaking monopoly.

Indeed, opposing Issue 3 due to its alleged creation of a weed monopoly is not unlike opposing legal alcohol in states like Pennsylvania where only state-sanctioned retail outlets can sell hard liquor and wine. If the priorities are legalized pot and undermining the drug war, then Issue 3 ought to be a no-brainer. And bonus: It'd create huge revenues for Ohio and create thousands of new jobs. Knowing this, however, I wonder whether liberal groups are opposed to Issue 3 because it's a monopoly issue or if it has to do with the Greens and groups like the MPP and DPA not being involved in the creation of the initiative. If this is about intellectual ownership and taking credit for the amendment should it pass, these pro-legalization liberal groups need to grow up and accept the fact that laws are rarely perfect and, in the real world, compromises have to be made for the greater good.

There are millions of Americans, mostly black people, in prison today because pot remains illegal throughout most of the nation. How many more pot users will be tossed in jail next year because those who would otherwise support legalization are balking at Issue 3? If there was just one state-sanctioned grower and it was co-owned by evil supervillains Monsanto and the Koch brothers, objections might be slightly more valid, but they still shouldn't stand in the way of preventing real people from going to jail, not to mention the obvious economic benefits of legal pot.

Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


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Drugs Legalization Marijuana Marijuana Legalization Mass Incarceration The War On Drugs