By now, if you follow marijuana in Ohio, you probably know of a group called Responsible Ohio (RO). It seemingly came out of nowhere last summer, bringing with it exorbitant sums aimed at financing a citizen-led initiative to place the legalization of marijuana on the Ohio ballot.
  Bringing this useful plant back from decades of prohibition has been an arduous process. Since 2000, six legislative bills concerning cannabis – aka marijuana – have graced the Ohio legislature, none making it past committee, all while 23 other states have established a legalized marijuana system, whether medically-focused or broadened to include adult use. The apparent success of these systems in Colorado, Washington and other states has ignited a modern-day gold rush, with the prospect of billions drawing a new class of advocate – the investor – into marijuana policy reform. These investors lack the magnanimity of their poorer predecessors, less interested in social justice and more concerned with ROI, the SEC and LLCs. Such is RO.

Weedheads over greedheads?
  Who exactly is RO, you might ask? Their website describes them as, “The ten groups consist of responsible and respected businessmen and women, of various ethnic make-up and backgrounds, from all walks of life. These ten groups are funding the campaign to bring responsible marijuana reform to Ohio.” Call them “investors.” The ten appear to have pooled their millions to fund both the signature drive that gets RO to the ballot and the micro-targeted advertising that gets voters to pass it in this fall’s off year election.
  But that’s not all. Not-coincidentally, the RO ballot language names ten specific sites by tax parcel number on which all marijuana proposed to be legal under RO will be grown and subsequently sold. It is rumored that each of these sites is worth $2 million, hence the $20 million that RO’s “investors” declare to be in their campaign war chest. This being the case, and unprecedented in the short history of global marijuana policy reform, the constitutional amendment that they are funding is the same one from which they will exclusively profit in perpetuity. You heard it right. This is pay to play taken to its extreme.
  So if we as Ohio voters “buy” this plan by enacting it, what do WE get? Sorry, not much.

  • Medical marijuana is not marijuana. The definition “marijuana” in RO actually excludes “medical marijuana, homegrown marijuana and industrial hemp.” So much for one plant, many uses. Just as “medical marijuana” is separate, so are its possession limits, which are not defined. Some have suggested that, because RO is silent on the quantities of possession for patients and caregivers, possession is unlimited. Attorneys specializing in election law counter that Ohio law remains intact except for where it directly conflicts with constitutional provisions. Under this construct, undefined patient possession reverts back to the Ohio Revised Code, which operates under decriminalization as established four decades earlier: Two hundred grams is the benchmark for felony possession. Two hundred grams are slightly short of eight ounces. Patients, who are the most vulnerable, could easily exceed this amount. RO contains no provisions to protect against arrest and prosecution and no affirmative defense, if arrested.

  • Dispensaries and low cost programs for patients that are merely optional. While RO’s Commission is charged with governing these programs, it “may” fund them only to the “extent the Commission so elects.” RO makes this clear in two different sections of its ballot language. Serving patients is thus optional – go/no go. If this is so, medical marijuana has been placed in RO’s amendment as a red herring to lure investors, volunteers and votes, leaving the sick, dying and disabled to suffer in its wake.

  • Home grow bait and switch. The first version of Responsible Ohio’s ballot language, publically released on February 9th, was panned on arrival because its top down model only permitted marijuana to be grown at 10 specific sites called MCGEs (Marijuana Cultivation Growth and Extraction facilities).

  • The bait. In a much ballyhooed pronouncement, the RO campaign announced on February 18th that home growing of up to “four flowering plants” would be allowed, along with possession of eight ounces of “usable homegrown marijuana at a given time.” RO tossed this bone to obscure two slights of hand. The first takes a microscopic look at the wording of that clause and finds one key word missing: transportation. This essential word permits growers to bring seeds or seedlings into their homes. Without it, and consequently the seeds or the seedlings, growing is impossible.  

  • The switch. Concealed under the big home grow proclamation was a 26 word switcheroo. One of the ten named grow sites – Montgomery County – was replaced with one in Delaware County. These sites are mission critical to the RO model. Shake funder confidence even a little and the RO house of cards falls apart. Better to obviate such facts. Now that RO’s new home grow ballot language is in circulation for initial signatures, one wonders what other provision will be the bait that conceals similar problems with a site in Licking County.  

  • Testing failure. On its website, RO states, “consumers will receive a tested product that is completely safe.” This implied guarantee suggests that all purchased product will be a tested product. How can that be when testing is not a function of even one massive grow facilities (MCGEs)? Further, the facilities designated for testing in RO can only “transfer” marijuana to an establishment that has “engaged” them. So much for “all purchased product.” Even if grow sites were engaged, the marriage would fail because hundreds of miles separate the massive grows from the testing facilities. The cost of miles transported added to the price of the end product would render it unaffordable. Consequently, it would be nearly impossible for the state – or RO – to guarantee that consumers will receive a completely safe and tested product.

  • Love affair with the 1 percent. A map pinpointing the locations of the 10 massive grows tells an interesting story. It oddly forms a question mark, starting in Toledo; moving to Cleveland, Akron and Canton; curving back to Central Ohio and finally punctuating the Cincinnati area. In essence, under RO, Ohio’s legal marijuana would mostly be produced near the 3-Cs: Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. Absent from the map are the poorest and most rural parts of the state, the Northwest and Southeast, where shipping measured in drive time will make the end retail product cost prohibitive. RO contains no consumer price protections. And, outside of RO’s cloistered one ounce model, all other marijuana remains illegal.

  • A monopoly by any other name is still a monopoly. RO states on its website that their mega-grows, “… will be operated by separate companies and have to compete with each other on price and quality, which is the exact opposite of a monopoly.” Really?

  • A monopoly? RO’s ballot language defines the 10 mega-grows – MGCEs –as “structures” or “real property,” not companies. Structures and property can be owned by both individuals and corporations. The owners of these properties, whoever they actually are, are the sole entities who would apply for licenses from the RO’s proposed Commission. Nothing in RO mandates corporate ownership, nor is there anything that requires separate ownership of the grows. RO’s campaign finance report indicates that its for-profit model is controlled by 10 numbered Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) that each match up to a filing with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) for a securities offerings worth $4 million. Ten grows time $4 million equals $40 million total. Three “Related Persons” are associated with all of these filings. Talk about diversity!

  • It's still a monopoly. Let’s take a look at the business definition of a monopoly: “Market situation where one producer (or a group of producers acting in concert) controls supply of a good or service, and where the entry of new producers is prevented or highly restricted.” RO is one group. It says so in its campaign finance report. Through its model, IT would exclusively control statewide marijuana production by disallowing anyone other than 10 sites IT creates to enter the market. IT exercises this control with an unchangeable amendment to the Ohio constitution that IT wrote and that IT paid for. What about ITS mode is not monopolistic?  Call it “market exclusivity” or call it a “monopoly,” or by any other name.  

Pot oligarchs will be planted in the Constitution

  All of these big and little devils in the details of RO tell why voters and advocates alike would be wise to carefully read the ballot language that would place them in the Ohio constitution. Many actually do the exact opposite of what RO purports them to do. Vast untraceable sums of money are buying their way into the Ohio constitution, and devilish details like these could color Ohio for decades to come. Ohio voters should not take on face value what Responsible Ohio says. They need to ask questions and consider the facts before signing and most definitely before voting for Responsible Ohio’s amendment.

Bob Fitrakis contributed to this article. He is on the board of the Ohio Rights Group that supports an state initiative to legalize medical marijuana and industrial hemp.  

What is the difference between a citizens-initiated constitutional amendment and a law?

The Ohio constitution contains a provision that allows Ohio citizens to add provisions to it, so long as the process follows certain steps. These include composing the ballot language and collecting a defined number of signatures from registered Ohio voters. The Ohio Secretary of State manages this process. The measure is placed on the ballot during a fall general election and, if passed by voters, becomes law just like a bill passed by the legislature. One of the main differences between the two is that the legislature is free to change or repeal the laws it makes, but a constitutional amendment can only be changed or repealed by voters in an election. Once added to the constitution, an amendment can become very difficult to reverse.