Ohio’s Fractured, Disheartened Cannabis Movement


Those hoping that legal adult-use cannabis becomes a reality soon in Ohio probably shouldn’t hold their breath. For another few days, landing an initiative on the November 5 ballot is still a technical possibility, and volunteers and activists tried to cobble together the thousands of signatures necessary to make it this year, but the campaign behind them has long been effectively dead.  

It’s worthwhile to go back and try to figure out why the initiative push collapsed and what that means for the future of cannabis legalization in the Buckeye State.

November’s midterms likely came as a disappointment to the more than half of Ohioans who, according to a 2016 Quinnipiac poll, have expressed support for adult use legalization. The Democratic candidate for governor, Richard Cordray, had said he would support legalizing cannabis if it were on the ballot, and the movement hoped statehouse gains by Democrats would lead to a more favorable environment this year. But the GOP, which has shown little appetite for taking on adult-use cannabis legalization, maintained large majorities in the House and Senate, and kept control of the governor’s mansion with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican who opposes cannabis legalization.

The state GOP’s anti-cannabis stance meant the new ballot initiative was legalization’s best shot for statewide change in 2019, and, likely, in the coming years. A group called Ohio Families for Change had already begun organizing around a ballot initiative that would legalize-adult use cannabis, and for a short time that possibility offered some hope beyond the midterm. Grassroots activists were excited by the group’s approach because it sought to usher in what they saw as a responsible era of cannabis legalization that wasn’t controlled by wealthy corporate interests that would heavily shape the future industry.  

But then, soon after the midterm election, that campaign was no more. Jonathan Varner, the former spokesman for Ohio Families For Change, confirmed to Cannabis Wire in an email that the group is no longer pursuing the initiative. The lead sponsor of the initiative, an entrepreneur named Thomas Jackson, of Athens, Ohio, couldn’t be reached for comment. 

So what happened?

Saraquoia Bryant, a leader of the pro-cannabis legalization group Grassroots Ohioans, told Cannabis Wire that those who were working on the campaign were stunned at the turn of events after the November election, when it quickly became clear Ohio Families for Change was unravelling. 

While activists knew the political winds would make the campaign difficult, money had already been spent by Ohio Families for Change, and volunteers, such as Bryant, had donated their time to gather signatures so the initiative could be placed on the ballot this year. 

But then the ballot initiative’s momentum faded. Bryant said that she was told that leaders of the group no longer wanted to fight an uphill battle, given GOP control of the statehouse, which dampened interest in the campaign among both activists and donors. Bryant and others were told that Jackson and others worried that Republican lawmakers would ensure the ballot initiative would fail one way or another. 

“I understand it,” Bryant said of the decision not to continue with the campaign. “It feels like constantly swimming upstream. But what happens when you give up? You just float down the river.”

According to the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, Jackson, a local entrepreneur and medical cannabis supporter who had been one of the primary drivers behind the campaign, rang up about $65,000 in debt for the campaign

Still, to understand the decline of the effort in 2019, it may be necessary to go back to 2015, when a campaign that was run by wealthy individuals—apparently for their own benefit—went down in defeat. Bryant said activists in the state have never recovered from that failed 2015 ballot initiative and have developed a deep mistrust for one another, fueled by suspicions about whether they are motivated for profit or an open system that welcomes small business and includes elements of social justice. 

The 2015 campaign was headed by Ian James, a political strategist who funded it with millions from corporate interests. The campaign, which featured a green cartoon “bud” mascot named “Buddie,” was brazen and deeply divisive, in part because the campaign’s select few wealthy donors were guaranteed business licenses, meaning they would have oligopoly control over the state’s industry. As Cannabis Wire co-founder Nushin Rashidian reported in 2015, “Buddie” quickly became a national symbol for an unsettling shift in power—out of the hands of the traditional policy and social justice-based cannabis legalization movement and into those of green-eyed industry newcomers maneuvering to be part of a burgeoning industry. Also in 2015, The Cincinnati Enquirer covered the widening rift among activists, between those who supported the 2015 ballot initiative and those who didn’t.

Don E Wirtshafter, a longtime cannabis activist and hemp entrepreneur in Ohio, told Cannabis Wire that moneyed interests, who have remained mostly anonymous, have destroyed the grassroots movement focused on small business and social justice. Those who want to push cannabis legalization don’t want an initiative that advocates for social justice and an open market, or any other “sensible” initiative, he said. 

James, the driver of the 2015 ballot initiative, confirmed in an email to Cannabis Wire that he is not working on an adult-use legalization ballot initiative. James said he is “solely focused” on hemp reform and didn’t respond to follow-up questions. 

Varner, a political consultant who was the former spokesman for the Ohio Families for Change, said the Ohio legislature has made ballot initiatives increasingly tough — and thus expensive. Ballot initiatives must receive signatures from 10% of the total vote in the last gubernatorial election. (Last year, 4.4 million voted, meaning anyone hoping to put a ballot initiative up for voter approval would need to collect about 443,000 verified signatures to make the ballot.) But organizers can’t simply go to one big city to collect all their signatures — they must this collect at least 5% of the vote total from 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties, according to the Secretary of State.  

Practically, groups seek to collect at least double the minimum required signatures because many will be disqualified because of mistakes made on signature forms—for example, voters who move between the time they put down their address and when signatures are tallied. 

“State legislators have made Ohio a tough place in which to get on the ballot,” Varner told Cannabis Wire in an email. “I think it is going to be extremely unlikely for someone to put up the millions of dollars it would take to qualify for the ballot and run a campaign without some sort of profit guarantee in the form of state-issued, exclusive licenses. I expect that most activists will take a lobbying approach. By pointing to nearby states, like Michigan, who have now legalized marijuana and will hopefully demonstrate that the product can be well-regulated, it may be possible to convince Ohio legislators to change the system. Arguably, however, news like the budding black-market system arising from an apparent surplus of cannabis in California gives naysayers a lot of ammunition.” 

Bryant said that she and some other activists still hope to push toward an adult use ballot initiative using the work the Ohio Families had started, even though that will be a steep challenge considering the cost of a campaign. Her group remains primarily focused on decriminalization efforts at the local level, such as the local ballot initiative in Athens in 2017, which reduced penalties for low amounts of cannabis possession to a misdemeanor. 

For now, the state’s medical cannabis program is slowly getting off the ground. Some of the biggest names in cannabis are already involved, including Acreage Holdings, which has former House Speaker John Boehner, a longtime Ohio representative on its board. Further, one of the largest cannabis companies in the world, Canopy Growth, has agreed to acquire Acreage the moment federal law changes in the US in a way that allows the deal to go through. 

Bryant said she believes there will likely be another push by powerful interests. But when? She’s not so sure. “There’s a lot of deep behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on in the struggle for cannabis legalization in Ohio,” she said. “They may be in the background for now. I wait on them to come out of the shadows.”  

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