Lessons Learned from the Debacle in Ohio

Issue 3, the marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot in Ohio this past Tuesday, was surprisingly unpopular with the voters, and lost the vote by 65 percent to 35 percent. It was an old-fashioned ass kicking – a drubbing that came despite polls indicating a slim majority of the public in Ohio favored legalizing marijuana.

That dramatic difference between the generic support for the concept of marijuana legalization, and the far lower support for the provisions contained in Issue 3, lead to a number of conclusions.

First, it suggests that unlimited amounts of money may not be the magic bullet for enacting legalization in a traditionally conservative state. Obviously a fat wallet makes it possible to collect the signatures to qualify he proposal for the ballot, and to hire campaign workers to canvas eligible voters door-to-door, to encourage their support. But in the end, if specific provisions of the proposal are unpopular, money alone cannot overcome substantive weaknesses.

Investor Driven Initiatives

Clearly the fact that this initiative was investor driven, and would have enriched those who put up the money for the initiative, raised serious issues that were likely fatal to this initiative. Even many who favored marijuana legalization were unwilling to support this version, because of the oligopoly of commercial growers that would have been established for the state, assuring financial rewards for decades to come for those who were rich enough be part of the investment team.

In the run-up to the election in Ohio, the opposition focused far less on an argument that legalization was bad public policy that would somehow harm residents of the state (the traditional arguments favored by opponents to legalization), and far more on the fact that the small group of investors were guaranteed to get rich. There was significant opposition to allowing this small group of people to use the voter initiative process for such obvious self-enrichment.

Voter initiatives were a creation of the Progressive era, a method for average citizens to adopt public policy change without the involvement of the elected legislature, and the public perceived this effort in Ohio as a perversion of the voter initiative process. And they refused to permit that to occur, even though a slim majority supported the basic change that was being proposed.

No one, except that small group of investors, liked the self-serving provisions contained in the language of the proposal, and even those of us who endorsed the proposal, because we felt it would stop the arrest of marijuana smokers years earlier that would likely happen if the change has to come through the state legislature, did so with strong reservations about that part of the proposal.

NORML begrudgingly endorsed the initiative, because we are a single-issue organization and the proposal did contain the basic changes we have been fighting for, for more than four decades. But we underscored our dislike for the self-enrichment terms in the language, and said we did not consider it a model that should be considered by other states.

But clearly a majority of the voters in Ohio put a higher priority on opposing those troublesome economic provisions, and were willing to continue prohibition rather than permit this attempt to pervert the initiative process to succeed. Whether this same conclusion will be shared by voters in other states is uncertain, but it surely should cause would-be investors hoping to cash-in in other states to proceed cautiously.

Some Problems Were Self-Inflicted

And frankly, some of the problems leading to this result had to do with the seemingly cluelessness of Ian James and the others at Responsible Ohio, who were in charge of the campaign. When opponents began to focus on the economic interests of the initiative funders, the sponsors attempted to sell what was an obvious liability as the price one had to pay to move the marijuana issue out of the hands of hippies and the counter-culture, and into the political mainstream. They insulted those who had worked long and hard to move public policy towards legalization for decades, and suggested they were doing us all a favor by agreeing to embrace our basic political goal of legalization, for a price.

Similarly, apparently unaware of the traditional low voter turnout by young voters in non-presidential election years – the strongest group of supporters for legalization — Responsible Ohio chose to run their initiative in 2015, rather than waiting for 2016 (as proponents have done in California, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Maine and Massachusetts). Again, instead of learning from the many marijuana initiatives that have occurred in this country going back to 1996, this gang who could not shoot straight claimed they preferred to run it in 2015, because of the usual low voter turnout, thinking their money could somehow invigorate the youth vote and they could sneak in a victory while the older voters were not paying attention. Talk about arrogance and hubris. These guys make Donald Trump seem humble!

A further example of their cluelessness was their use of a colorfully decorated bus and a silly mascot named “Buddy” – a sort of superhero with a big marijuana bud for the head – in a state-wide tour, as their primary tactic for getting the youth vote energized and excited about the upcoming chance to legalize marijuana.

Apparently they had never heard of “Joe Camel”, the cartoon camel that was used for years by big tobacco as a device to entice young Americans to try tobacco smoking, where once addicted, they would be tobacco customers for life, although that life would likely be cut short because of their use of tobacco. Following the discovery by Congressional investigators of documentation proving that was the intent of spending huge amounts of money to publicize Joe Camel, the tobacco companies were finally publicly shamed into ending the campaign and retiring Joe Camel.

But when confronted by NORML and others for their eerily similar use of “Buddy,” James and the Responsible Ohio campaign ignored our warnings that many Americans, even those who favor marijuana legalization, remain concerned about the risk that legalization might somehow lead to an increase in adolescent marijuana smoking, and that they were setting themselves up as an easy target by long-time opponents of legalization (which, of course, came almost instantly). James actually insisted that their “Buddy” campaign was popular, was gaining them great press exposure, and the campaign continued all across the state, right up to the election.

Again, the arrogance of this group was amazing, and their failure to understand the caution that is required when dealing with the marijuana issue, as contrasted to many other issues of public policy, was astounding.

It is impossible, without exit polling (and I doubt Responsible Ohio will share their exit polling, assuming they even made the effort to find out why opponents voted the way they did) to know which of these several tactical and strategic blunders was primarily accountable for their embarrassing defeat. My personal belief is the economic self-enrichment was the major flaw in the campaign, but the decision to mount the effort in an off-year election clearly contributed to their defeat (the youth vote turnout was low), as did their use of “Buddy” with a tin ear to the likelihood it would appear they were appealing to adolescents.

Responsible Ohio had this plan to legalize marijuana and get rich at the same time, and they were simply not interested in learning from the past, or even consulting with others who had far more experience in running marijuana-related initiatives.

As a result, only James came out ahead, as he was allegedly paid more than $4 million dollars to run the ill-fated campaign. And even James may well learn to rue the day he took on this badly conceived campaign, as he is a professional who has made his reputation running more traditional campaigns, and it is difficult to imagine that his reputation will not suffer from this unnecessary debacle. Issue 3 will forever be a case study for how NOT to run a marijuana initiative.

But the real losers are the marijuana smokers in Ohio, who will continue to be arrested for years to come – nearly 20,000 each year — when a better drafted and more professionally run campaign could have ended prohibition and stopped the marijuana arrests.

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