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Radical Rant: National Legalization Strategies Leaving Activists Hanging

Russ Belville

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Last week, we saw another move forward for marijuana reform in America. The Ohio legislature passed a medical marijuana bill, becoming the 26th state to protect patients from arrest for using cannabis as medicine.

The legislature was spurred into action because of polling from the ill-fated 2015 campaign to legalize marijuana in Ohio. That measure, Issue 3, was reviled by national legalization groups for its odious proposal to lock in 10 commercial grow sites to the investors in the campaign. While the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) offered tepid endorsements, the big national funders—the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP)—remained neutral on the Ohio legalization and, most tellingly, provided no financial support for the measure.

Issue 3 lost by the worst margin for a statewide legalization initiative since Oregon in 1986. National reformers breathed a sigh of relief that the “constitutional monopoly” had been avoided. However, there was a silver lining in the loss; polling from that campaign indicated substantial support for medical marijuana in the Buckeye State.

So MPP, seeing the potential for another win from polling they provided no support for, jumped into the state, forming Ohioans for Medical Marijuana and hiring longtime local activists, including some who had fought for legalization the year prior.

Those local activists put their heart and soul into the campaign. Their efforts would bring whole-plant, home-grown medical marijuana to Ohio, marking the first time since Michigan in 2008 that all patients could grow their own medicine. The measure also contained strong protections for patients’ rights and an expansive list of qualifying conditions.

The popularity of medical marijuana and the likely success of the MPP initiative then spurred the legislature to act. They crafted a medical marijuana law typical of the ones we’ve seen in recent years, with no home grow, no whole-plant and no smoking of medical marijuana. While activists continued to gather signatures, lobbyists worked the legislative process to improve the legislative proposal, finally getting the concession of allowing plant material for patients, but maintaining that it still must not be smoked.

With the win achieved, MPP then decided to disband its Ohioans for Medical Marijuana campaign, explaining that it is hard enough to fundraise for medical marijuana, but even harder when we’re essentially arguing to raise a “B-” medical marijuana law to an “A+.” Fighting to add home grow to medical marijuana, apparently, just isn’t worth the fight.

From the perspective of national reform strategy, Ohio is a success. The threat of the ballot initiative forced a recalcitrant legislature to pass reform. But from the perspective of a patient who may have volunteered to gather petition signatures in hopes of being able to grow his or her own medicine, it’s got to feel like being used as an ultimatum.

To the northwest of Ohio in Michigan, it’s got to feel like a wasted opportunity. While MPP was pouring time and resources into getting a medical marijuana win in Ohio, grassroots activists there, working as MILegalize, were canvassing the state to collect signatures for marijuana legalization without any national funding.

Michigan, as I mentioned, passed medical marijuana in 2008 and did so by a 63 percent vote, winning every single county in the state. A number of cities in Michigan have passed decriminalization measures. The polls for legalization in Michigan are all positive. The Great Lakes State is certainly fertile ground for marijuana reform.

So as the activists from MILegalize turned in 354,000 signatures this week on an initiative that requires 252,523 to make the ballot, I’ll bet they’re wondering how many more signatures they could’ve gotten with some of the money spent on an Ohio medical marijuana initiative that went nowhere. Michigan now needs 71.4 percent of those signatures to be valid to make the ballot, when history shows professional signature gatherers are lucky to get 70 percent validity.

This practice of using activist campaigns as leverage against wary lawmakers isn’t new. Last year, there was an initiative circulating in Denver to create legal pot lounges. It had gathered enough signatures and was ready for the ballot. Polls showed it had a good chance of passing.

But before it could be placed on the ballot, MPP pulled the initiative. They argued that the threat of the initiative brought the city leaders and business leaders to the table to negotiate an accommodation for public use of marijuana. They further argued that passing the initiative would lead to the city fighting back in court and using state law to punish public use.

As some had predicted, with the social initiative scuttled, Denver leaders never got around to accommodating public use. Denver’s NORML Chapter has now taken up the fight to pass a new social use initiative, having to start from scratch with a whole new signature drive.

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