By Joe Garofoli
San Francisco Chronicle.
Californians who want to legalize marijuana next year may see cautionary lessons in the way 64 percent of Ohio voters crushed a bid to legalize it there on Tuesday.
Ohio’s ballot measure beatdown wasn’t as much about weed as it was money and control. Ohio’s Issue 3 would have allowed only 10 marijuana growing sites in the state. Those 10 sites were owned by some of the wealthy people — including reality TV star Nick Lachey — who contributed $36 million to the measure. That gave many voters the impression that the legalization bid was something of an inside job that would benefit only a chosen few.
The measure’s opponents sunk it by calling it a “monopoly,” but really it would have been an oligopoly — establishing a different type of weed cartel.
“The Ohio initiative, pushed by wealthy investors with no prior connection to marijuana activism, would grant its backers a permanent, lucrative oligopoly on marijuana cultivation in the state,” wrote Keith Humphreys, a former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and a member of California’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy and a Stanford professor.
That’s one of several teachable moments California’s legal pot backers see in Ohio’s failed bid:
Keep all types of cartels out: Also on Ohio’s ballot Tuesday — in reaction to the weed initiative — was Issue 2, which would have prevented monopolies from being written into the Ohio state constitution. On Tuesday, 52 percent of Ohio voters supported keeping the state monopoly-free.
“Any voter initiative in any state can not just ‘be good for big marijuana industry’; it must be good for the community at large, and with the participation of the community, rather than from behind closed doors,” said Dale Sky Jones, the executive chancellor of Oaksterdam University and chairwoman of Reform California, which is supporting a legalization measure aimed at the 2016 ballot. “Ohio rejected the idea of being bought, and wanted good policy, which the voters did not feel this initiative provided.”
In California, supporters hope that making weed legal would not only dilute the power of Mexican drug cartels that run illegal grow operations, but also protect small growers. Gov. Jerry Brown just signed laws governing the medical marijuana industry, and the measures included protections for small growers.
Some of California’s smaller pot farmers hope that the state learns from what happened in Ohio — and from its own medical marijuana laws — and includes safeguards “against the abuses of monopolies” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “Proponents of (legalization) initiatives in California would be wise to use this framework as their starting point,” he said.
“Legalization should not be about replacing one cartel with another,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a legalization advocate who led California’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, a nonpartisan group charged with offering a policy road map for a legal recreational market.
It takes more than money: Legalization supporters in Ohio spent around $20 million on the campaign — about what many insiders estimate it could take to win in California. At one point in the campaign, they were outspending their opponents by more than 30 to 1.
Raising money has often been a problem in cannabis legalization campaigns. This week, The Chronicle reported that billionaire tech investor Sean Parker and other deep-pocketed financiers are backing a legalization measure, ensuring that at least one of the 18 marijuana proposals in California’s November 2016 ballot pipeline would have the money needed to wage a legitimate campaign.
But Ohio showed that the source of that big money matters, too, said Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California Norml (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). “Money alone can’t win an election, especially when it comes from entrepreneurs with an interest in legalization,” Gieringer said.
Timing matters: The Ohio crew ran the campaign in a non-presidential, off-cycle election year — which tends to draw an older, more conservative electorate. California learned this lesson in 2010, when legal pot bill Proposition 19 failed in a non-presidential election year.
“Timing is everything, and California already learned the hard way that off-cycle elections fail due to the conservative voter turnout in off-presidential elections,” Jones said.
Build the foundation: Medicinal marijuana isn’t legal in Ohio. That means the state was attempting to make a leap Tuesday that no other state had done — from a fully illegal weed market to a fully legal one.
For legal pot backers, California may have an easier path.
The state boasts a 20-year-old medicinal market and an established growing industry: 60 percent of the nation’s marijuana is grown in three of its northern counties. That may make California voters less hesitant than others on marijuana issues, supporters say.
Educating the public is a big part of California’s legalization push. In July, California’s Blue Ribbon Commission issued a 93-page report and road map to legalization. Jones’ Reform California also has held many public meetings around the state to gather input for its ballot measure.
“Ohio’s cautionary tale highlights the importance of the Blue Ribbon Commission and its measured approach to legalization in California,” Newsom said Wednesday. “Our recommendations are centered on strategies to protect youth, public health and public safety, and combatting the illicit market.”
Build consensus: Eighteen groups in California have submitted proposed legalization measures aimed at the 2016 ballot. While the state attorney general’s office has given 10 of the measures a title and summary, allowing them to begin collecting the signatures needed to get on the ballot, most will be poorly funded.
Now, the challenge facing cannabis legalization supporters in California is — unlike Ohio — to present a united front. For months, leaders have been negotiating about how to get behind a single ballot measure. It’s a conversation that will likely continue well into next year.
None of the advocates want to blow this golden chance at legalization.
“Consensus can happen,” Jones said. “However, concessions must be made by the authors.”