Cannabis Legalization in the Midwest

By: Cecil King   

Cannabis Legalization in the Midwest

Cannabis activists who have pushed legalization for years, even decades, have faced myriad challenges. Launching a ballot initiative to end prohibition at the state level takes lots of money and a highly organized, motivated and expertly managed group of politically savvy supporters.

Ending the federal war on drugs has always been the idealistic goal for anti-prohibition activists. Ohio’s failed constitutional amendment to end cannabis prohibition in 2015 revealed an interesting, but predictable question. “Can cannabis legalization survive ‘Big Marijuana?'”

Moneyed interests have gathered and are circling the periphery of legalization efforts. They’re ready to pounce on any economic opportunity. Activists now have to realize the fight against prohibition has changed. There is a new ally and it’s called capitalism.

Whether you call them “Ganjapreneurs or Cannapreneurs,” these cannabis entrepreneurs are happy to end prohibition, but they want to make money with legal marijuana. They may, or may not have any connection or history with the legalization movement, but they do want to earn profits from legal cannabis sales and are willing to make huge investments to roll back prohibition.

The Responsible Ohio Political Action Committee (PAC) was responsible for organizing and funding constitutional Amendment Issue 3 in Ohio. The group’s investors would be granted the exclusive right to own and run ten initial independent wholesale cannabis growing facilities across the state. All cannabis destined for retail sale would have been provided by these growing facilities.

Ohio Amendment Issue 3, titled the “Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative,” had all the fundamental rights cannabis enthusiasts want:

  • Legalizes cannabis for everyone 21 years of age or older, to purchase, grow, possess, use, transport and share over one-half pound of marijuana or marijuana-infused products. (8 ounce home-grown limit.)
  • Allows growing up to 4 flowering plants at home with a paid license fee.
  • Allows purchase of one ounce at a retail store (in addition to the 8-ounce home limit).
  • Legalizes marijuana-infused products.
  • Establishes a medical marijuana program with a sliding scale based upon patient need.
  • Allows 1,159 retail stores (one store for every 10,000 Ohioans.)
  • Prohibits zoning laws to be passed that interfere with marijuana businesses.
  • Establishes laboratory testing to ensure product safety.

Voters delivered a 2 to 1 KO blow to Ohio legalization. They voted “no” to a constitutionally mandated economic cartel with exclusive growing and distribution rights. But did they establish a precedent against big money taking over legal marijuana?

Illinois’ Medical Cannabis Pilot Program has already proven that the “business of marijuana” has become a millionaire’s game in the Midwest. The Green Rush Consultancy estimates that to open a cultivation center in Illinois would set you back at least $2.225 million to get the license with another $3.5 million recommended for operations. All these expenses would be incurred without selling a single cannabis flower. The Illinois Department of Agriculture had no problem gathering applications for the 22 cultivation centers. They’ve closed the application process.

Getting Issue 3 on the ballot in Ohio required a Herculean investment of time and money. Ian James, executive director of Responsible Ohio (RO), who owns the firm, The Strategy Network (TSN) a political consultancy has conducted several successful signature-gathering campaigns in Ohio. He admits “this is a very difficult process,” especially when the Ohio legislature requires electronic scanning and tracking for all petitions.

Early on in the process, James required a $2 million contribution from investors to build a battle chest of $20 million for signature-gathering and other campaign costs. Investors pledged an extra $20 million for voter education and marketing costs.

In contrast, Colorado’s legalization measure passed in 2012 had gathered only $1.8 million in contributions by the middle of June to fund the Amendment 64 fall ballot, according to analysis by the Denver Post newspaper. Only $16,500 of Amendment 64’s monetary contributions came from within the state, while the lion’s share was from out-of-state concerns.

If Ohio’s legalization efforts had succeeded, it would have added another nail in the coffin of the federal “War on Drugs.” For many Missourians, especially on the eastern side of the state, Ohio would have been the preferred destination when the first retail cannabis stores would have opened. Cincinnati, at about 350 miles is a lot closer than a two-day, 850-mile trip to Denver.

The lessons learned with Ohio Initiative 3 sends a strong signal to Missouri’s cannabis activists. A successful citizen initiated ballot requires plenty of capital. Missourians will have to open their wallets a little wider to ensure a cannabis related ballot initiative actually succeeds at the polls.