Ohio Marijuana Legalization Still a Big Question Mark, But Latest Poll Paints Promising Picture

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By John Schroyer

The group behind an effort to legalize marijuana in Ohio has definitely succeeded in one area: generating attention.

But it’s been difficult to assess whether ResponsibleOhio’s measure – Issue 3 – has enough support from locals to pass next month, as there haven’t been any recent polls about the initiative specifically.

Until now.

A new poll released Tuesday morning found that 56% of voters in the state support the proposal, which would legalize medical and recreational cannabis under one measure and grant sole commercial cultivation rights to top campaign donors.

The survey – spearheaded by local TV station WKYC and conducted by Kent University – provides the first real glimpse at whether ResponsibleOhio’s measure stands a chance of passing, and the odds look good at this point.

“I think it moves it into the coin flip category,” said Tom Sutton, chair of the political science department at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio.

Another poll released last week found 90% support for MMJ and 53% support for recreational in Ohio, but the survey focused on legalization in general, not the specific measure on the ballot.

That’s an important distinction because Issue 3 is highly controversial, as it would set up a commercial marijuana cultivation oligopoly owned by investors who chipped in millions of dollars to fund the campaign. That has earned the measure a fair share of detractors, including many longtime cannabis activists.

So voters who support legalization in general might vote against this specific proposal.

The cultivation provision even spawned the creation of a separate ballot measure by the state legislature that could nullify Issue 3, even if both are approved by voters. This measure – called Issue 2 – would modify the state Constitution to prevent using the state’s initiative system to establish any monopoly, oligopoly or cartel.

If both measures pass, it could set the stage for a legal battle. ResponsibleOhio Executive Director Ian James told Marijuana Business Daily he’s consulted with attorneys, and he believes there’s a solid argument that Issue 2 wouldn’t negate Issue 3, even if both are approved by voters.

“The direct conflict does not exist, because… Issue 2 speaks to passage of an amendment with the sole purpose of sale of marijuana. That’s not the purpose of Issue 3,” James said, pointing out that it also would set up an MMJ program, allow for home cultivation, and likely jumpstart thousands of new businesses, including rec shops, dispensaries, infused product makers and ancillary companies.

James said ResponsibleOhio’s internal polling shows that support has remained steady at about 57%. He said he remains “95% sure we’re going to win.”

Other observers, however, are a bit more skeptical about the measure’s chances.

“Historically, Ohio voters tend to be cautious about voting for major changes in a policy like this,” Sutton said,.

He noted that in odd-year elections such as this one, older voters tend to represent more of the turnout, and they’re generally opposed to legalizing marijuana.

WKYC – the TV station behind the poll – also mentioned this dynamic.

“If turnout is low among young people – and it will be compared to older registered voters – it will pull the number of yes votes down from the 56 percent that said they would vote yes in our survey,” WKYC reported.

The campaign is far from over, though, so there’s still plenty of time for organizers to drum up more support and convince younger residents to cast their votes.

With the election still three weeks away, ResponsibleOhio has millions in the bank to spend on advertising via TV, radio, the Internet and direct mailing, among other options. The campaign has 200 people in the field every day, knocking on doors and drumming up support, James said.

ResponsibleOhio also scored a victory last month after it challenged the wording of its measure as written by the state Ballot Board. The state Supreme Court ruled mostly on behalf of the campaign and ordered the ballot wording to be rewritten.

The court did, however, allow the board to keep the word “monopoly” in Issue 3’s ballot title.

“Leaving the word ‘monopoly’ hurts, because that’s going to be part of the campaign against,” said Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.

Indeed, the campaign organized to fight Issue 3 named itself Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies. The monopoly argument has dogged ResponsibleOhio for months, with columnists and activists alike condemning the initiative because of how it’s structured, not because they’re against marijuana legalization (of course, there are those opponents as well).

Plenty of organizations have also come out against Issue 3, including the the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Republican and Libertarian Parties of Ohio, the Ohio chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business and the Ohio Bankers League.

The list of supporters is much shorter.

Three Ohio local chapters of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union have come out in favor, as well as the Ohio ACLU. The Ohio Rights Group, a pro-MMJ organization that had been working on its own ballot measure for 2016, also endorsed Issue 3 on Tuesday. Aside from a tepid endorsement from NORML – the board of directors was split – that’s pretty much it. National groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance are sitting this one out.

“We have only so many resources and so much time,” said Mason Tvert, MPP’s communications director, noting his group is working on five other state legalization initiatives, as well as state and federal lobbying efforts.

Tvert added in a not-so-subtle dig at ResponsibleOhio, “It’s not written in a way in which we would typically write a measure.”

There’s also the question of cannabis activists sitting on their hands instead of voting in support.

At least one other group is already working on a 2016 ballot measure to legalize both MMJ and rec, but without the cultivation ownership restrictions. ResponsibleOhio could also try again if it fails this year, or another group could come forward with a proposal to only legalize MMJ in the state, given that support for medical is sky-high.

“That’s like a slam dunk,” Sutton said. “Somebody should be smart enough to at least try that and get that passed, and then build on it.”

John Schroyer can be reached at johns@mjbizmedia.com