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Don’t Sacrifice Ohio Democracy for Monopoly Scare Mongering

Russ Belville

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One week from today, Ohio Issue 2 and Ohio Issue 3 will be on the ballot. Issue 3, you might have heard, legalizes the personal possession and home cultivation of cannabis, legalizes medical marijuana and establishes a legal marijuana market in Ohio.

The controversy over Issue 3 is that the legal marijuana market will consist of up to 1,159 independent marijuana stores, but they will be purchasing wholesale from cannabis grown on just 10 investor-owned plots of land where marijuana may be legally cultivated for sale. This had the politicians in Ohio screaming “monopoly”—a misnomer, as there are 10 separate competing entities that own the plots of land.

As it became apparent that Issue 3 would collect the signatures necessary to make the ballot, the legislature sprang into action. The legislature had been beseeched by desperate parents of epileptic children to make a non-psychoactive form of medical marijuana available for years. On that issue, the legislature wouldn’t budge—but when it came time to fight against legalizing that medical marijuana and adult personal use of marijuana, the legislature was quick to put together a competing ballot initiative for voters called Issue 2.

Regardless of how you may feel about Issue 3’s marijuana legalization model—indeed, some of my best activist friends are vocally opposed to it—you cannot as a citizen wishing to end prohibition vote yes on Issue 2.

Issue 2 is a direct assault on the democratic power of the people to initiate laws. Fewer than half of the states in the U.S. have the power to put citizen initiatives on the ballot. Passing Issue 2 would create extra hurdles for citizen initiatives, giving decisive control over these initiatives to a five-member partisan government Ballot Board.

Not only is Issue 2 an attempt by the Ohio legislature to subvert democracy, it is an underhanded and sneaky attempt to purposefully confuse voters who support marijuana legalization.

In its first two points, Issue 2 would:

  • Prohibit any petitioner from using the Ohio Constitution to grant a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel for their exclusive financial benefit or to establish a preferential tax status.
  • Prohibit any petitioner from using the Ohio Constitution to grant a commercial interest, right, or license that is not available to similarly situated persons or nonpublic entities.

To a casual cannabis voter who is not paying much attention, he or she may see the “prohibit monopoly” part and think “that’s a good idea,” vote yes and move on to Issue 3, where he or she would see see “legalize marijuana” and vote yes, thinking they’ve just voted for legalization.

But those voters would be wrong, because buried in the fourth point of Issue 2 is this:

  • Prohibit from taking effect any proposed constitutional amendment appearing on the November 3, 2015 General Election ballot that creates a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel for the sale, distribution, or other use of any federal Schedule I controlled substance.

Even if the casual cannabis voter got that far, would he know that his “yes” vote on Issue 2 just canceled out his “yes” vote on Issue 3? The legislature carefully worded this point so it doesn’t use the word “marijuana” or refer to Issue 3.

To confuse voters was the goal of the legislature, and it seems to be working. In an article titled, “Voters confused by wording of Ohio Marijuana Issues,” WDTN-TV in Ohio “interviewed nine people about how they’d vote — if the election were today. Eight of them didn’t make the ballot selections they really intended.”

WDTN went so far as to create an interactive guide, where if you click “I want marijuana legalized” it tells you to “Vote No on 2 and Yes on 3.” A similar tactic was used by Fox19 to explain the initiatives—“If you want marijuana to pass in Ohio, vote no on Issue 2 and yes on Issue 3.”

Ohio, your initiative process is precious. Note how the first point addresses “exclusive financial benefit” and “a preferential tax status.” The five-member, Republican-majority Ballot Board would then get to decide what those terms mean.

Suppose you want to put medical marijuana on the ballot, so that patients have a place to shop for medicine tax-free. Does the Ballot Board decide that the dispensaries are getting an “exclusive financial benefit”? Are patients getting “a preferential tax status”? If the Ballot Board decides that way, then your medical marijuana initiative becomes two questions on the ballot, and both of them have to get a majority in order to pass.

In other words, voting “yes” on Issue 2 might mean your next marijuana election in Ohio requires two majority votes to win instead of just one.

If that weren’t sneaky enough, in placing the summary of Issue 3 on the ballot, the state fought hard to make sure that it would be called a “monopoly.” Issue 3’s campaign argued that 10 competing interests aren’t a monopoly—“mono” means “one, not 10,” that would be “deca”—but the Supreme Court sided with the state.

Part of the reasoning by the state was that the more accurate term “oligopoly” (market controlled by a few wealthy players) was a more confusing term that most voters wouldn’t understand. Yet the state figured they could use the word “oligopoly” in Issue 2—mostly because they realized if they left it as just “monopoly,” they’d be subject to lawsuits over the definition of that word.

However you choose to vote on Issue 3—either for legalization of marijuana or for continuing the current marijuana prohibition—it would be a self-defeating mistake to vote yes on Issue 2. Democracy is too important and initiative powers are too precious. Don’t weaken your initiative power, Ohio.

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