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The Issues with Issue 3

By Michael AlterPublished November 11, 2015

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With the recent push to legalize marijuana at the state level, Michael Alter looks at the debate behind the headlines in the latest candidate to put the issue to it's voters: Ohio.
By Michael Alter 11/11/2015
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    Since 2012, various jurisdictions in the United States have enacted laws to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, or marijuana. Alongside the options of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, and besides the candidates for federal, state, and local legislative representatives, voters in Colorado and Washington had the option to legalize marijuana for commercial sale and recreational use, in addition to medical use. They did so by very similar margins: 55/45 in Colorado and 56/44 in Washington. In 2014, Oregon and Alaska followed suit. Other jurisdictions, like the city of Portland, Maine and the District of Columbia, have legalized it as well, although because DC voters have to get things passed with congressional approval, they managed to only get possession and use, not commercial sale. On the ballot this year was Ohio's Issue 3, and as we approach 2016, at least 8 other states could have legalization measures on their ballots.

    Why has there been such a push in recent years to legalize cannabis for recreational use? Several reasons come to mind; one is that the so-called War on Drugs has in many respects failed, and led to far-reaching unintended consequences that states are now looking to deal with. Signaling from the Obama administration that the federal government will permit states to go against the federal drug regime created by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 with respect to marijuana also is a factor. The increased research showing marijuana has legitimate medical applications and that other effects of the drug were not as bad as previously thought has increased popular approval for other uses of the drug. With the increased focus on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration, addressing the poor performance and the racial undertones of mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses has taken national attention, and marijuana is the main culprit of those drug-related crimes. Plus, the allure of tax revenue in a starved economy doesn't hurt; and some libertarians and Republicans are seeing legalization as a way to decrease the interference of government in people's lives.

    Many states were reluctant to legalize marijuana for fear that they simply didn't know what the effects would be, and whether positive would outweigh negative effects. After Colorado and Washington have had their new systems in place for a few years, we can see what the effects have been so far. Overall, they have been quite positive. The Colorado State Government received almost double the revenue from the taxation of the commercial production and sale of marijuana than they expected, the majority of which went directly to the public school system. Crime rates are down in part because the decreased focus on issuing drug offense tickets has freed officers to pursue other crimes; the state's overall property crime rate is down almost 9% compared to 2013.  Washington has seen similar benefits, and barring extreme exogenous variables, we can assume Alaska and Oregon will be similar.

    So, if this policy has been a relative success in the Western states, why then has the Ohio ballot measure received increased attention? Why was there not any major newspaper endorsement of Issue 3? Well, it might surprise that most of the opposition isn't necessarily about the legalization debate; increasing numbers of Republicans and Democrats are finding common ground in permitting more freedom of choice among residents, better protecting consumers through honest regulations, and taxing the product to provide for state services. The heart of the Ohio dispute is whether or not the way in which the measure is being done is appropriate. Based on last night's election, apparently most Ohioans thought it was not.

    The text of the measure stated that if adopted, the state constitution would have been amended to create ten licensed farms to grow and process the plant, and a set number of stores set up to sell the product based on Ohio's population. Opponents claimed that this actually created a monopoly/oligopoly for large companies to take over the marijuana business in Ohio from the very beginning. To combat this, and (for many) to derail the possibility of Issue 3's passage, the Ohio Legislature passed another ballot measure, called Issue 2, which was supposed to deal with the monopoly issue by making it unconstitutional to constitutionally grant a monopoly. According to some state officials and legal experts, passing Issue 3 and 2 might have been legally impossible, as the language of 2 would seem to cancel out that in 3, even if more voters supported 3 than 2.

    The media campaign was been fascinating. Usually, the image of your average/stereotypical marijuana user is a college-age liberal who is fundamentally skeptical of big business, which makes this debate very interesting. ResponsibleOhio, the main group campaigning for the legalization of marijuana through Issue 3's strategy, outspent the opposition by huge margins, with ads and a marijuana mascot named Buddie. Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies led the No campaign, and argued that even if you may be inclined to legalize some form of marijuana, doing so via this method was the wrong way to do it. And, the results from November 3rd were clear on Issue 3: 36/64, a definitive rejection. On Issue 2, the results were a bit less clear, partly because the monopoly issue and the language of the measure were confusing, but the measure passed: 51.58 % Yes, 48.42 % No.

    After this vote, many marijuana legalization supporters across the state of Ohio, and across other states looking to put measures to the voters next year, will take these lessons to heart: clarity of message is crucial, and institutional monopolies usually rub people the wrong way. Ohio state leaders have said that, after hearing arguments about marijuana legalization, both recreational and medical, more measures in the state house will be taken up regarding cannabis. So, even though legalization didn't happen this week in Ohio, that might be a very good thing, especially if it's done right the next time around. With the arguments for legalization getting stronger every year, and with more states expected to put the question to voters in 2016, the Buckeye State will be back soon enough. They might get a bit distracted for a while, but they'll be back all the same.