In less than a week, Ohioans casting their ballots will be faced with a difficult decision: how to vote on Issue 3, which would legalize marijuana for both medical and personal use while putting the Initiative's funders in complete control of cultivating the highly lucrative plant. Despite its many shortcomings, voters who want to end the war on marijuana in Ohio and add to the national movement's momentum should vote yes on Issue 3.
And yes, there are a lot of shortcomings. The prospect of giving an oligopoly on marijuana cultivation to a small group of wealthy individuals has enraged legalizers and prohibitionists alike, with the main opposition group even calling itself (somewhat inaccurately) No Marijuana Monopoly. Influential organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project are even sitting out this campaign because of it. Yet other scandals have plagued the campaign, from creating a ridiculous marijuana-headed mascot to demonizing much more sensible regulations in Colorado in order to scare voters into supporting highly restrictive rules. Activists and voters are right to condemn the campaign for this misbehavior.
Yet, no matter how irresponsible ResponsibleOhio proves itself to be, neither imperfect regulations nor grudges against the campaign's leadership is reason to vote against legalizing marijuana. Activists must remember the reason we joined this movement in the first place: not to get rich, but to end the atrocities committed as part of the War on Drugs. Because 13,000 Ohioans should not be arrested for marijuana each year. Because prohibition is disproportionately enforced against low-income communities and people of color. Because relegating marijuana to the black market only makes consuming and obtaining it more dangerous. Because a high school student shouldn't be driven to suicide by teachers who told him ruined he ruined his life by smelling like marijuana.
Moving from prohibition to legalization, no matter the specifics, is always a step in the right direction. With an issue as important as ending the War on Drugs, we can't let perfect be the enemy of good. And despite all of Issue 3's flaws, there are actually a lot of worse laws out there (all of which were supported by the reform movement, albeit grudgingly at times). New York's medical marijuana law only allows for five companies in the entire state, each running their own cultivation, processing, and dispensaries -- far more restrictive than leaving cultivation to 10 companies and allowing a free market for processing and retail. Minnesota only allows two, and like New York, doesn't allow any smokeable products to be sold. Connecticut, while allowing smokeable cannabis, still only has four cultivators and six dispensaries in the entire state. And I won't get into the even more restrictive CBD-only laws that, despite being practically ineffective, are typically viewed as small steps forward by reformers.
Legalizing marijuana in Ohio would not be a small step, but a giant leap for the national movement to end the War on Drugs. This Midwestern state is widely seen by political strategists as a barometer for the rest of the nation, so adopting legalization would have a huge impact on the 2016 presidential race. It would be impossible to write off legalization as a few liberal states experimenting with new ideas, proving that it enjoys broad public support across the country. A victory in Ohio would also add momentum to the five states voting to legalize in 2016 -- Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Arizona, and California -- and make opponents second-guess dropping huge political donations on a lost cause. It would also be the first state to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana in one fell swoop, opening the door for others to do the same.
Now, some critics may say that passing ResponsibleOhio would also open the door for similar oligopolies and irresponsible campaigns in other states. To be fair, this is true -- but it would still be a net gain for the fight against prohibition. The most progressive states have already legalized marijuana, and other deep-blue states like California and Massachusetts will do so soon. But if this model is what it takes to open the door to legal marijuana in Oklahoma or Arkansas, we should welcome such campaigns. Once legalization is adopted, there will be many opportunities to amend and tweak the laws and regulations. Ohio's Issue 3 allows the state government to expand the number of cultivation sites if the existing 10 don't meet demand, and since the state has been hostile to ResponsibleOhio, it's reasonable to expect officials would eliminate their oligopoly as soon as possible. Since the initiative will create hundreds of thriving processors & dispensaries, those businesses could also get together to fund a new initiative that opens up cultivation to everyone, or the legislature could refer a question that removes the oligopoly while keeping legalization intact (unlike this year's Issue 2, which may block legalization entirely if passed).
Since it would bring an end to the tragedies of marijuana prohibition, add momentum to the national legalization movement, and can be improved later on, Issue 3 would absolutely be a net gain for Ohio and the country. As conventional political wisdom says, "So goes Ohio, so goes the nation." Presented with the opportunity to send Ohio and the nation towards marijuana legalization, those who believe in reform would be foolish not to.
I hope this convinced supporters of marijuana legalization to vote Yes on Issue 3, but if you're still on the fence, listen to the debate I recently co-moderated on my podcast This Week in Drugs and see which guest you think makes the better case.