Philly420: A vote to keep marijuana underground

Legal pot has become "a sport for the wealthy."

More than 1 million votes were cast yesterday in Ohio for legal marijuana. But Issue 3, a ballot initiative that sought to legalize cannabis for all uses, was soundly defeated. 

When the polls closed the margin was almost 2 to 1 against.

Ending marijuana possession enforcement wasn't enough. Stopping a discriminatory drug war policing wasn't enough. In the end the establishment politicians of Ohio  skillfully played things just right. In a brilliant strategy they kept everyone's focus on the money. 

Thus a step forward for civil rights was thwarted by the all-mighty dollar.  

Ohio state legislators even hedged their bet by placing a competing initiative, Issue 2, on the ballot to prevent legalization if it had won. Issue 2 passed by 52 percent.

Words like "oligopoly," "monopoly" and "cartel" were the language of Issue 2, repeated over and over to describe the 10 sites that would have been locked in to grow all of the wholesale weed.

Ohio business groups, trade associations, police and prosecutors found strange bedfellows with stoners and marijuana advocates in a frantic chorus against the perceived greed. Many who support legalization in general voted against Issue 3 or simply could not decide and sat out the election. The distaste that an exclusive group would make millions from legal marijuana stole the show.

Completely upstaged were provisions for home cultivation and the end to criminal prosecutions. Even Washington state's recreational marijuana law prohibits personal growing. 

Today, commentators from across the spectrum are offering varying analyses of why Ohio came up short.

A bad plan. No "free market." Poorly timed. Low turnout. Those are the common themes.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), who stayed neutral on Issue 3, brushed off the loss. Aiming for legalization initiatives in at least five states in 2016 their claim is that Ohio was just a sad fluke, an imperfect way to change the laws.

They offered an explanation for their neutrality saying their fight is primarily for social justice in marijuana. They claim that regulated business after legalization happens are just a happy byproduct. Such an argument will be lost on the next person who goes to court in the Buckeye State for the felony of cultivating 4 plants that weigh more than 100 grams. It is also a bizarre tack for the reform groups who maintain close ties to the exclusive cannabis industry.

Somehow Ohio voters and many advocates were lured away from Issue 3 at the prospect that a pure open market for potential cannabis business owners can be achieved. 

Both DPA and MPP were cheerleaders of the restrictive medical cannabis program in New Jersey. Literally operating as a cartel the NJ Medicinal Marijuana Program has licensed just 6 facilities to serve the entire state. Sure, there was an open bidding process. But only a handful of very wealthy and very politically connected groups applied. The winners all had close ties to the Christie administration and tens of millions of dollars in cash on hand. Hardly a level playing field. 

The idea that any working class person can travel to say Colorado and break into the marijuana industry to then become a millionaire is a pipe dream. Yet it maintains the same romance as poor prospectors striking it rich with oil or gold. The reality is that if you want to grow and sell some green buds you already need to have access to greenbacks, a lot of them.

All the regulated marijuana systems have expensive initial overhead and permit fees. Thus entering the market for legal marijuana is a sport for the wealthy. Now there is certainly money to be made. Charging $300 to $400 an ounce for legal cannabis that costs about $100 an ounce (or less) to grow produces an assuredly healthy profit. The common $35 per gram ($980 an ounce) for hash oil concentrates is even more lucrative.

Industry leaders say these are the prices that the market will bear, mainly because that's what consumers were used to paying underground. They also claim the price is tied to risk; that the federal government could turn against them at any moment. The hefty margins are just another happy coincidence.

The fact that the existing industry and wealthy weed investors in other states were going to get cut out of expansion into Ohio was also the clear source of backlash. But at least the Ohio investors were up front. The medical and recreational cannabis folks in other states would rather play closed door politics for financial preference. There is nothing new in that of course, it happens every day in the oil and gas industry, healthcare, telecommunications...the list goes on and on. 

The tax scheme in Ohio's Issue 3 is mainly what caused the political establishment to organize against the measure. ResponsibleOhio, the group running the campaign, were unabashed in their attempt to keep the potentially huge tax windfall out of the hands of state legislators. Instead the bulk of the marijuana taxes would have gone directly back to the county governments. 

The Ohio legislature isn't done fighting back either. Today some of the fiercest opponents of Issue 3 are saying the legislature will move on a do-nothing medical marijuana bill to mollify some voters. 

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told Cincinnati.com: "As I traveled around the state, Ohioans think that very limited, narrowly targeted medical marijuana is appropriate." 

Far from progress, this is another hardcore political play. Passing some compassion on paper and not the real world will go far to hold back the masses from another ballot attempt. 

DeWine is also suing the city of Toledo to prevent a local marijuana decriminalization from being implemented. 

So today the status quo of marijuana prohibition is safe in Ohio. The entire cannabis market for recreational and medical use will remain underground, tax free. Tens of thousands of Ohioans will be cited or arrested in the coming years for doing something perfectly legal in other states. Racially biased enforcement in Ohio cities will continue. 

My hope is that the civil rights ideals of the marijuana reform movement will indeed be renewed. Advocating for one business model over another is not winning anyone any freedom. 

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at chris@freedomisgreen.com.