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Ohio Issue 3 Loss Costs Marijuana Reformers the Moral High Ground

Russ Belville

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On Tuesday, when Ohio’s pot legalization initiative failed to pass, some marijuana legalization advocates lost the moral high ground in the debate to end marijuana prohibition.

For years now, the legalization side has positioned the arguments around themes of social justice and patient access. Legalization has to happen, the argument went, because black folks are four times more likely to be busted for weed. Being busted for weed meant a litany of harms, including searches, tickets, fines, arrests, incarceration and the loss of job, housing and educational opportunities. Prohibition meant moms with epileptic kids were risking felonies or considering emigrating for cannabis oil and veterans with PTSD and cancer and AIDS and MS patients would suffer.

The framing was that if we don’t end prohibition, real human suffering occurs.

On the other side, Kevin Sabet and the prohibitionists have been fighting like hell to pull the reform discussion away from those twin pillars of social justice and patient access.

On the medical marijuana side, the argument is over, with almost 90 percent of America agreeing that suffering people should have safe, legal access to marijuana. On the social justice side, the racial disproportion is impossible to defend and increasing super-majorities believe if there is any punishment to remain for recreational marijuana use, it should be the lightest of slaps on the wrist, not arrest and jail time. Sabet can’t win those arguments.

Where prohibitionists want the argument to happen is in the frame of “Big Tobacco 2.0.” Prohibitionists want the framing to be about big, predatory capitalists, lying about marijuana and marketing it to our kids. They need for the argument to be about people getting rich by selling a dangerous vice.

Some marijuana reformers would argue that’s what they’ve just defeated, with these investor oligarchs and their cartoon Buddie mascot. But by celebrating the crushing defeat of Issue 3, they have walked right into the prohibitionist frame by adopting Kevin Sabet’s talking points. They have agreed there is such a specter as “Big Marijuana” to be feared and opposed, even at the cost of patients’ lives and consumers’ liberty.

Now that it has lost, the precedent has been set that social justice and patient access aren’t so paramount. Now the question becomes whether the right people are getting rich on marijuana legalization in the right way, and if not, the injustice and suffering of prohibition shall continue.

Social justice and patient access just took a back seat to economic considerations.

Consider the next time Kevin Sabet gets to debate one of these reformers. When the reformer talks about the need to end arrests and help the sick, Sabet can just pivot and say, “You could’ve ended arrests and helped the sick in Ohio, but you eagerly opposed that because it locked up the profits for 10 investors. It really is about who gets to be Big Marijuana.”

Why Was Ohio Issue 3 the “Bridge Too Far”?

Consider also how difficult fighting in that economic frame becomes the more you know about reform organizations’ history of supporting recent medical marijuana legislation.

Suppose that Ohio’s Issue 3 wasn’t comprised of only 10 commercial growing licenses already owned by the campaign investors. Suppose instead that there were just four commercial growing licenses, but they’d be up for competitive bids. It will cost $25,000 (a non-refundable application fee) just to be considered for a bid. Then, you have to prove you have $2 million at hand in escrow to move forward. Finally, if you’re one of the four selected, your grow license costs $75,000. So, like, it’s competitive among multi-millionaires.

Is that something that the reformers who are opposed to oligopolistic control of marijuana markets must also oppose?

Because that’s the medical marijuana law passed in Connecticut in 2012. Maybe you didn’t hear mention back then from some reformers about how that was an oligopolistic money grab that didn’t include the little guy?

Nope, in March 2012, Marijuana Policy Project raved about the plan that would “finally provide seriously ill medical marijuana patients with the protection they deserve.” Thanks were graciously offered to the Drug Policy Alliance and Connecticut NORML for their hard work in setting up a state where not just the 10 grow licenses were controlled by rich people, but the dispensaries, too, and to date there are just six of them, not the over 1,000 that Ohio Issue 3 promised.

I guess Ohio patients aren’t as deserving as Connecticut patients.

When it comes to medical marijuana laws promoted by reform organizations, any compromise is worthy of supporting, whether it costs patients or enriches oligarchs.

In Arizona in 2010, Marijuana Policy Project set the precedent of creating the first medical marijuana state that does not allow all patients to homegrow cannabis medicine. If they live within 25 miles of a dispensary, MPP decided, they’d be forced to buy marijuana at the dispensary. MPP’s Andrew Meyers explained at the time that it was necessary “to ensure the dispensaries would be viable; to give them a market”.

Hmm, writing a law that gives market capture to owners of grow licenses… isn’t that a bad thing we’re supposed to oppose now?

Since then, no medical marijuana state has allowed home grow for all patients, a compromise reform organizations claim is necessary to clear resistant state legislators.

Massachusetts copied much of the Arizona 25-mile halo rule and allows for only 35 growers requiring about $80,000 in fees and $500,000 in escrow. The rest of 2010’s medical marijuana states—Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, and New Hampshire—all forbid all home grow.

So, we can force patients to buy medicine from capitalists rather than grow it cheaper, because that’s a compromise necessary to achieve a victory… but the compromise of giving grow market capture to Ohio investors who proposed allowing patients home grow rights was too much to bear?

Then there are Minnesota and New York.

Those states passed laws proposed by the reform organizations that don’t even allow medical marijuana patients to have actual medical marijuana. No plants allowed, either for home grow or for purchase. Patients must use a non-smokable form of cannabinoid products, thus eliminating the simplest, cheapest and most-effective medical usage for many patients. Those states have just two and five grow licenses.

Minnesota has a $20,000 non-refundable application fee and start-up requirements “in the neighborhood of $10 million”. New York’s non-refundable application fee is $10,000 and the license costs $200,000. In both states, the growers also own and control the up to eight or 20 dispensaries, respectively.

How did we not hear screams of “regulatory capture” and “monopolistic cash grab” in 2014 over these laws? Why is it that New York and Minnesota locking up the entire medical marijuana market for seven entities and making it all non-plant and no home grow an acceptable compromise to help patients last year, but Ohio’s 10 entities supplying over 1,000 independent retailers with whole-plant and allowing patients to home grow was unbearable this year?

Finally, there’s Washington’s I-502.

Every reform organization was enthusiastically supportive of that legalization plan, even kicking in six-figure donations to help it pass. Even though patients complained that it didn’t include reconciling the existing medical market and accurately predicted it would lead to legislative decimation of that market, reform organizations (myself included) argued that the first legalization victory was paramount. Even though I-502 established a retail market without allowing home grow, which benefits the capitalists who are selling marijuana. Even though I-502 made the status quo worse for patients and frequent consumers by establishing a 5 nanogram per se DUID that all the reform organizations vigorously oppose.

So, three years ago in Washington, we could reduce patient access, endanger consumers who drive and give a market to the marijuana growers and retailers; but this year we couldn’t create in Ohio medical marijuana for patients who’ve never had it, give everyone the right to home grow and establish more access to marijuana than in all four legal marijuana states combined?

Because Nick Lachey might get rich?

I’m sorry, but none of these justifications about fearing the rise of the marijuana oligarchs rings true to me when reform organizations have supported every medical marijuana law they’ve written since 2010 that does just that.

Fortunately for me, Kevin Sabet can’t trap me in the economic frame. I’ve always supported every marijuana reform that curtails the ability of police to infringe on marijuana consumers’ liberty. Kudos to National NORML and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition for recognizing that civil rights still trump economic ideals.

"Radical" Russ Belville hosts 'The Marijuana Agenda' on YouTube, a live weekday news/talk program all about cannabis. Learn more at MJAgenda.com.

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