On November 3, Ohio voters turned down a ballot initiative, labeled Issue 3, to amend the state constitution by permitting state residents age 21 and up to buy, use and grow limited amounts of marijuana for personal or medical purposes. Despite national and statewide polls showing almost 60% of registered voters favor allowing adults to possess small amount of marijuana for personal use, Issue 3 went down to a 64%-36% defeat.
The setback to the ballot measure was not due to underfunded backers; they reportedly spent $35 million on intensive media and organizing efforts. In fact, their ample funding paradoxically became a large obstacle to passage, because a major draw for financial backers was a provision in the proposal earmarking licenses for 10 to-be-created marijuana cultivation sites for investors backing the campaign.
That allowed opponents, who ranged from supporters of less well-funded marijuana proposals, many state officials, and business and hospital groups, to attack Issue 3 as a special-interest proposal. It also sparked another ballot measure, Issue 2, which called for outlawing state ballot measures which would create new monopolies. Voters separately approved Issue 2, with 52% of voters casting ballots for it. Had Issue 3 also been cleared by Ohio voters, it would have immediately faced legal challenges claiming it was in violation of the newly approved Issue 2.
The unexpectedly large defeat — polls shortly before the vote had shown the vote likely to be neck-to-neck — left many questioning the strategy of ResponsibleOhio, the main backer of Issue 3. Critics faulted the group for its timing — staging a ballot measure fight in a year with no major elections in the state – since off-year elections traditionally draw lower turnouts, and are often dominated by older, more conservative voters.
But by far, the most criticism directed at the Issue 3 campaign came for its earmarking cultivation sites for financial backers of the measure. That even came in for a post-election tongue-lashing from Ralph Nader, keynoting a marijuana business conference in Las Vegas on November 12. The consumer advocate called it “unconscionable” and exactly the wrong direction for marijuana law reformers to take. Rather than create special-interest provisions favoring a small group of sellers, Nader told the crowd, “you’ve got to free the people who grow it and the people who sell it.”
While ResponsibleOhio said it would continue to press for marijuana legalization, and hinted it might try to get another measure on next year’s ballot, it remains to be seen whether Ohio will again bring a marijuana legalization measure to the voters in the near future. Polls have shown a measure that authorizes medical marijuana but not recreational use would be far less controversial.
Despite the defeat of Issue 3 in Ohio, marijuana law reform has likely not lost momentum. Ballot measures are certain to be presented next year to the voters in numerous states, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, and Nevada, and perhaps others (although in several of those states, such as California and Massachusetts, different reform groups are backing competing proposals). There is even speculation marijuana legalization might play a significant part in the 2016 presidential election.