It’s Election Day, that grand bastion of American Democracy marked by peaceful transitions of power, speculative gambling, and at least one diabolical conspiracy theory. One of the key issues to be decided by voters this cycle is quickly shaping itself into a perennial American favorite: marijuana legalization. Seven states will decide on recreational marijuana initiatives at the ballot box over the next several years, meaning that come 2017, marijuana could be legal in over one-fifth of the U.S. By far the most immediate (and interesting) battle, though, will be fought in the somewhat unexpected dark horse of Ohio. The Buckeye state is split not only over if marijuana should be legalized, but also how the end of pot prohibition would be structured.
In short, Ohio’s Issue 3 would restrict the commercial growth of marijuana plants to ten specific farms, all of which are owned by the same “investors” who fronted the cash to get the initiative on the ballot in the first place. (Interesting side note: one of those investors is none other than former 98 Degrees heartthrob Nick Lachey.) But the restrictive nature of Issue 3 has not gone unnoticed. Ohio’s Issue 2 is a direct challenge to the proposed legalization structure, setting up a legal struggle that could very well wind up at the state’s Supreme Court.
The entire fiasco raises interesting questions about the role of money in American politics. Right or wrong, financial interests and U.S. election cycles are inextricably linked. It’s entirely possible marijuana wouldn’t even be a discussion in Ohio without the $36 million put up by the ResponsibleOhio cabal. And, whatever your personal moral or ethical views on recreational marijuana use, there’s really no question that unshackling the ganj will provide a powerful boost to the Midwestern state’s economy. Regardless the specific legal framework, ending prohibition comes with the potential of adding hundreds of jobs and can fill the state coffers with some badly needed green. (The money kind, not, well, you know.)
Is it fair for these investors to reap the benefits of the change they are paying to bring about? After all, U.S. intellectual property protections are founded on similar principles of rewarding those who bring about such positive economic changes. The key difference here, though, is that patents (and copyrights too, though they might as well be permanent) expire. Issue 3 has no expiration date, indefinitely granting those 10 farms what will undoubtedly amount to competition-stifling market power. After all, if some form of monopoly power wasn’t the aim, why build in a commercial restriction in the first place?
If anything, it is this naked grab for a permanent monopolyesque system that will likely turn off voters and see Issue 3 dead by nightfall. Had ResponsibleOhio built in some provision to open the market after some set period of time, the “just desserts” argument for the cartel could be plausible and even compelling. But there is no such provision, and the onerous restrictions of private growing and the constitutional codification of special tax protections lend further credence to the notion that Issue 3’s aims are less than benevolent.
Proponents of the initiative will argue that the benefits outweigh the costs, and that any long term issues with market competition can be addressed when they crop up. But by then the group’s interests will be entrenched, and they’ll have even more capital with which to defend their turf from legal challenges. Don’t believe in the staying power of government enforced monopolies? Just consider how we all created the $100 million dollar fortune enjoyed by Cindy and John McCain by shelling out $2.63 at a time.
None of this is to say that Ohioans should reject Issue 3 no matter what. After all, Election Day is about Democracy, and if the voters decide the benefits outweigh the added costs, then so be it. But there will be costs, and those voters need to think long and hard about how much they’re willing to pay for Stoner Santa to bring a Green Christmas to Ohio a year early.
UPDATE: The voters have spoken, and Issue 3 is not to be. Whether this is because of the ResponsibleOhio’s tactics or a broader distate for legal weed, I guess we’ll have to wait until next year to find out.