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ResponsibleOhio Responds to Criticism, High Times Follows-Up with Rebuttal

Emily Cegielski

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Last month, High Times published a column criticizing a marijuana legalization proposal by a group known as ResponsibleOhio. The piece, written by long-time High Times contributor Jon Gettman, was titled “Irresponsible Ohio: Group Aims to Monopolize Legal Marijuana Market,” and it elicited quite the reaction from ResponsibleOhio and its supporters. 

Below find an unedited response from Ian James, ResponsibleOhio Executive Director; followed by a High Times rebuttal. 
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Working for Legalization and Public Safety in Ohio

By Ian James, ResponsibleOhio Executive Director

I was raised here in Ohio. I grew up in Appalachia, went to college in my hometown and despite living in several other states as a young adult, I returned to my home state and have never regretted the decision. I love this state—I love our diversity, our passion and the important role we play on the national political stage.

I’ve spent my life working in campaigns and public advocacy, and I’ve come to love Ohioans’ capacity for change. It’s this very trait that will play such an important role this year as Ohioans consider legalizing marijuana.

ResponsibleOhio is working to legalize marijuana for both medical for the chronically ill and personal use by Ohioans 21 years of age and older. As the Executive Director of this organization, I’ve had a front-row seat to the exciting conversations our campaign has sparked over the last six months or so. The conversation has extended from our campaign offices in Columbus throughout our state and around the country, and was continued here in a column by Jon Gettman. I appreciate Mr. Gettman’s attention to the issue, although I disagree with his characterization of the campaign and feel compelled to clarify a few points.

If passed, our amendment would create a safe, legal market for marijuana in Ohio. The industry will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue for our communities and create thousands of jobs. We have collected over hundreds of thousands of petition signatures in support of our amendment and are confident that we will qualify for the November 2015 ballot.

As we worked on the text of this amendment, it was of the utmost importance that we not only legalize marijuana, but also do so in a way that would promote public safety.

The purpose of this law is just that—to legalize marijuana and enhance public safety.

The government is hardly “being used,” as Mr. Gettman describes it—quite the opposite. This campaign is direct democracy in action with Ohio citizens working to change our state’s laws.

Medical marijuana legislation has been introduced in the Ohio General Assembly in every session since 1997. And despite the fact that over 80 percent of Ohioans support the idea, the General Assembly has consistently refused to move the issue forward. Even now, there is a bill languishing in the Ohio House of Representatives. The bill in question would only legalize medical marijuana for patients with extreme cases of epilepsy and it nevertheless has never made it out of committee. Even in a scenario like this, with patients who so desperately need access to medical marijuana, our elected officials refuse to take action.

Ohioans cannot afford to wait any longer for legal access to marijuana.

Ohio has a process for direct democracy specifically to address situations like this. When our elected officials refuse to act, the people have the right to take action. That’s exactly what ResponsibleOhio is doing—working to carry out the will of the people when elected officials will not.

What’s more, the dedicated activists who have been working in our state for years simply lack the resources to win a statewide campaign. Ohio might be the nation’s best example of a purple state. There’s an old saying, “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation.” We are the consummate swing state, the center of the national political dialogue [sic] in every presidential race. And we hope to be the national tipping point for marijuana legalization.

While other advocacy groups have struggled to make headway in the face of our state’s complicated process to the ballot, ResponsibleOhio is poised to put legalization before Ohio voters this November. In doing so, we’re not only bringing medical marijuana access to patients who desperately need it, we’re also repealing a failed prohibition that has divided families and ruined lives for decades.

Far from “advance[ing] private interests at public expense,” as Mr. Gettman puts it, our campaign is working to advance the interest of public safety and reform our state’s destructive marijuana prohibition. The legal marijuana industry in Ohio will be an open, competitive market, with opportunities for entrepreneurs limited only by their creativity.

The public can and will be proud of this industry, and it will benefit all Ohioans through significant job growth and new tax revenue. Our economic analysis, which has been independently vetted, projects that by the time the market stabilizes in 2020, the industry will generate approximately $554 million each year in new tax revenue for our communities. These dollars are needed now more than ever considering the massive cuts to local government funds in recent years. Furthermore, legalization could open the door for more than 1,100 retail marijuana stores along with limitless product manufacturing facilities, testing facilities and not-for-profit medical dispensaries.

Public officials and voters from both sides of the aisle have already voiced support for our effort. With former elected officials and law enforcement members endorsing the proposal and the backing of professional athletes and community leaders alike, we have truly brought together a diverse coalition. Furthermore, our campaign has collected hundreds of thousands of petition signatures in support of our amendment. We will be continuing this positive momentum until we formally file our signatures with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office by July 1.

You can’t achieve momentum like this without significant public support. We’re excited about our proposal. And Ohio voters are excited about it too.

In November, we know that advocates will head to the polls eager to finally legalize marijuana. It’s a simple choice: legalization now, or continued dialogue [sic] in the future. For suffering patients and the unjustly prosecuted, the need for reform is too urgent to delay. By passing this amendment in November, Ohio can begin the crucial task of building a brand new industry and spreading its benefits to all of our citizens.
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IrresponsibleOhio – Part Two

By Jon Gettman

Not all marijuana initiatives are created equal. As High Times reported, there is a legalization proposal by a group named ResponsibleOhio for an amendment to the Ohio state constitution that would keep the cultivation and sale of marijuana—by far the most lucrative aspect of the industry—in the hands of a small cabal of ResponsibleOhio cronies.

Ian James, Executive Director of ResponsibleOhio, has published his response to High Times’ article, and while it touches on many of the subjects that have driven the legalization movement for the past 50 years, it avoids entirely the fact that his initiative is a Trojan Horse for the venture capitalists that sponsor it. Mr. James lets us know that he loves his home state of Ohio and is well versed in marijuana legalization rhetoric, but still refuses to comment on these two central facts regarding his proposed amendment:

  1. ResponsibleOhio’s initiative would create a closed-to-the-public oligarchy of 10 designated (and already chosen) marijuana cultivation sites.
  2. Marijuana cultivation above four homegrown plants would remain illegal in the state, which means Ohio law enforcement would be acting, in effect, as taxpayer-financed protectors of ResponsibleOhio’s cartel.

ResponsibleOhio has gathered sufficient signatures to be confident their measure will be placed before the voters. But is this a good piece of legislation for Ohio? Let’s be clear—the constitutional character of this measure will make it hard to change. There are other, more inclusive initiatives out there, even in Ohio. The defeat of this measure will not be a setback for legalization, but a rejection of a poorly considered proposal.

ResponsibleOhio’s proposal does not address areas of criminal law unaffected by the initiative’s provisions. Under this initiative, it will still be a felony to possess or cultivate over 100 grams of marijuana. The sale of any amount of marijuana will also remain a felony. Anyone who grows marijuana and sells it to a friend faces a sentence of a year in prison. This proposal creates an enormous private interest with commercial incentives to oppose further marijuana reform legislation in Ohio.

This is not the only way to get legalization in Ohio. The financial backers of ResponsibleOhio could have just as easily advanced a proposal calling for open competition for a limited number of cultivation licenses, or better yet, an open competitive market such as the one they propose for the rest of the industry. Why haven’t they done this? Because they seek to leverage the public’s interest in legal marijuana for their own personal gain. They seek to reduce personal risk and enhance their own potential profits by creating a closed cultivation market with artificially inflated prices and easy profits.

Mr. James argues that “public officials and voters from both sides of the aisle have already voiced support for our effort.” But what about the considerable amount who oppose the measure, including numerous legalization advocates who have been involved in this issue a great deal longer than Mr. James and his financial backers? If ending prohibition in Ohio is of such crucial importance, as he argues, how can ResponsibleOhio justify provisions that create such opposition among otherwise strong supporters of marijuana legalization?

There is an obvious and insulting cynicism about this path to legalization. It is the same policy-by-platitude approach that created and maintained prohibition for generations, one that suggests that the public doesn’t care about details, hidden costs, or who really benefits. This initiative presupposes that the people most affected by public policy don’t deserve a role in its creation. This is not “direct democracy” as Mr. James argues, because the public has had no direct role in creating the regulations in this take-it-or-leave-it proposition. “Direct democracy” would be a measure that produces an end to prohibition, creates a broad regulatory framework and a democratic process for citizen involvement in determining how specific regulations serve to protect the public interest.

A recent task force commissioned by ResponsibleOhio, but operating independently, has just issued its study estimating that marijuana legalization in Ohio will produce 34,000 new jobs and $1.6 billion in wages. How much of this economic benefit is specific to ResponsibleOhio’s cartel framework compared to marijuana legalization with an open, competitive market in cultivation is a matter for debate. But it is revealing that the study’s projections are based on their determination of the optimal market price of marijuana—$9.93 per gram or $281.51 per ounce. They also base their estimates on a 198.71 percent markup from wholesale to retail sales.

This underscores the basic fact that the purpose of a cartel is to:

  1. Limit supply, and
  2. Support inflated prices.

The consumer is forced to overpay for a commodity that would be available for much less cost in a competitive market. The economic impact study estimates that the black market will still, after legalization, capture 16.07 percent of the market—but at these prices, there will be considerable competition from independent growers operating outside the legal regulatory framework, working at cross purposes with the public policy objective of putting an end to the illegal market in marijuana cultivation and sales.

The central issue here remains unaddressed by ResponsibleOhio. How is the public interest served by awarding exclusive cultivation rights to their financial backers? Their response that this is a necessary political payoff for their support of the initiative may be politically illuminating, but one that remains evasive and insufficient with respect to public policy and public safety.

“As goes Ohio, so goes the nation,” Mr. James quoted. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this initiative. The cannabis movement is at a precarious crossroads, the plant’s future as a commodity in the United States depends on the decisions that voters and lawmakers make today. If big money initiatives like this are allowed to pass without scrutiny, America can end up with a new kind of prohibition, one that keeps the citizen from participating in the new industry and steers the bulk of the profits into the hands of a select few.

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