Ohio has at least four efforts underway to put a marijuana issue before voters statewide. The efforts are:
- Ohio Rights Group. A constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana.
- Responsible Ohioans for Cannabis. A constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana.
- Responsible Ohio. A constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana by a new group that doesn’t yet have a web site.
- Ohioans To End Prohibition. A constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana.
None of these groups is likely to succeed.
Ohio has burdensome ballot access rules that make expensive, time-consuming and logistically difficult to get on the state’s ballot.
Signature gathering and legal expenses generally cost $2 million minimum, often much more. After that, a successful campaign can cost tens of millions of dollars in a large state with many television markets.
If medical marijuana made the statewide ballot, it would almost certainly be approved, even without a paid media campaign. Medical marijuana is supported by 87% of voters and every demographic group. This is a close to indestructible margin for a constitutional amendment that needs only 50% + 1 vote to pass, unlike Florida’s 60% supermajority requirement.
By contrast, marijuana legalization would likely lose at the ballot box, even with a $40 million media campaign, almost certainly without one.
Ohio voters supported legalization by a 51-44% margin in February 2014. That small and soft margin would quickly evaporate in the face of uncertainty over policy and implementation issues, broad opposition from the political and legal establishment, and division within Ohio’s reform community.
Ohio isn’t Colorado — or even Michigan.
The Buckeye State was a leader in marijuana reform for more than a century, from the Ohio State Medical Society’s production of the first comprehensive review of medical marijuana in 1860 to the state legislature’s early decriminalization of marijuana possession in 1977.
But, in the last four decades, Ohio has gone from a leader to laggard, not just on marijuana but on social and economic change generally.
The legislature has changed since 1977. So has the state.
Ohio was once a social and economic innovator. In 1910, Wilbur Wright said the key to success was to have good parents and be born in Ohio.
It’s not that way today. In 2015, Ohio is a swing state — a barometer of the national average.
It’s not that Ohioans won’t approve marijuana legalization. They will. But the question is best asked properly, not suddenly.
Ohio doesn’t have a big libertarian or populist streak. Our politics are more Big Government, Big Labor, Big Business. Stasis, not change, is the natural disposition of our state’s electorate. Change comes slowly and cautiously.
In every state where marijuana reform has occurred, state-level reform has followed local reform. Michigan reform advocates spent years winning small elections at the municipal level, building a grassroots movement that resulted in voters approving medical marijuana in 2008.
By contrast, Ohio reform advocates have spent decades grasping at the Big Bang theory of statewide change — with zero success. Rarely has anything been attempted locally, not in friendly college towns to accomplish anything locally.
The result has been a political disaster. Our neighbor is years ahead of us in reform — not Colorado or Washington level reform but progress unmatched in the industrial midwest. Ohio and Michigan have roughly similar constitutions, ballot access and home rule laws, yet Ohio reformers have yet to even try to win in friendly college towns, such as Columbus, Miami or Athens.
Michigan’s strategy is Politics 101. It follows Tip O’Neill’s maxim: “All politics is local.” Tactics are basic and systematic: Win where you can, when you can. Build political momentum. Grow support, create organizational capacity. Be bold, daring and clear-eyed. Don’t waste money or energy on impractical dreams.
In Ohio, marijuana reform starts locally. This is how it began in Colorado and Washington.
If Ohio’s marijuana reform movement doesn’t have the ability to even try to decriminalize possession in Youngstown or stop license suspensions in Columbus — or, heck, even get a non-binding resolution supporting medical marijuana on a small town ballot — the reform movement has little realistic chance of achieving statewide legalization.
Ohio reformers need to prove they can accomplish something before the cash balloon arrives from out of state.
Ohio reformers need to get on a winning streak, to succeed before local voters and local city councils. Ohio reformers need to make news, to start a bandwagon, to create a web site, to build mailing lists, to hold a few victory parties.
If legalization is on the ballot, vote for it, of course, and sign the petition to get it on the ballot.
But, remember, Ohio State’s football team is not in the national championship because of a strategy of only throwing deep Hail Mary passes. The Buckeyes are there because of relentless work at every level of the game.
Marijuana reform starts locally not because it’s the best strategy. Reform starts locally because it’s the only strategy — at least the only one that ever wins.
— Dennis Cauchon, editor, PotLocal.org