Oh, Ohio

Oh, Ohio

Following an intense and deeply thoughtful debate this summer, Students for Sensible Drug Policy opted to remain neutral on Ohio’s Issue 3, the wildly controversial ballot initiative to legalize cannabis for adult and medical use in Ohio in 2015. The cannabis community at large is torn on the issue; the SSDP Board of Directors (largely students elected by their peers), Trustees, and community are similarly torn.

One of the options we considered was a qualified endorsement outlining our concerns but cheering the end of marijuana prohibition, but many of us could not become comfortable with even that level of support. That option was off the table following the appearance of and subsequent conversations with the campaign about the “Buddie” mascot, an affront to our careful work to end prohibition and a threat to future reform that plays directly into one of the few arguments prohibitionists have left. Regardless of the merits of the initiative itself, we couldn’t possibly endorse the behavior and tactics of the campaign.

By remaining neutral, we were able to give our Ohio chapters, which were equally divided on the initiative but all offended by the campaign tactics, room to make their own decisions. We empowered them to work with the campaign but also draw boundaries by setting only two network-wide restrictions: no SSDP-sponsored event could include Buddie nor could campaign staffers disparage successful reforms in other states and feed into to unfounded prohibitionist fears.

The conversation we had helped us clarify our priorities in this changing landscape of cannabis policy reform, and ultimately defined what is most important to SSDP. There’s no need to lay out the benefits of ending cannabis prohibition for the readers of this blog, but it is valuable to explore the specific problems of this initiative and the struggles our community had in accepting it.

Impact on young people. The initiative requires the legislature to define distribution to a minor as child endangerment with enhanced penalties, a serious charge with lasting consequences for employment, housing, and other services. It is unclear how this provision will be handled at the legislature, but it could easily put young people with 20-year-old friends at risk of serious jail time, penalties, and a lifetime of consequences the day they turn 21. Any efforts to curb use and access for people under 18 or 21 must also consider the impacts on their peers.

Corporate responsibility. The specifics of licensing structures are generally not of concern to SSDP. As long as the license selection system encourages accountability, transparency, and integrity, any supply system is preferable to prohibition. But an oligopoly controlled by 10 companies with opaque ownership structures designed to obstruct investigation is not likely to be accountable, transparent, nor particularly good examples of integrity.

Economic injustice. Part and parcel of ending the War on Drugs and replacing it with more sensible policies is creating a better economic situation for its victims. Reasonable SSDPers will disagree about how to best go about that and whether or not the marijuana industry in other states brings us toward those goals, but we can all agree that auctioning off the most profitable activities (cultivation and extraction) to the highest bidder and leaving only least profitable activities (infusion and retail) to the rest does not create adequate economic opportunity for people marginalized by the drug war.

Selectively sloppy drafting. Sections of the initiative dealing with business opportunities are very carefully drafted, but we suspect many of those which impact patients, consumers, and criminal justice did not receive the same consideration. For example, the home cultivation license introduces a novel restriction to the state constitution (and a new crime, perhaps, for those who cultivate without the license) without conceptualizing a regulatory structure for issuance of tens of thousands of unnecessary licenses.

Future reforms. Setting aside the known and limited harms of cannabis, we must acknowledge that we are fighting to change not just laws but minds. The world is watching what happens in states where reforms are taking hold, and it is incumbent on those of us who believe in sustainable reforms through incrementalism to take seriously the concerns of the majority of the voting public who just aren’t sure about legal cannabis but are sick of the drug war. Among other things, the healthy interplay between regulators, lawmakers, industry, and the public have thus far restrained tendencies toward so-called “big marijuana.” This initiative may not prove our opponents right, but it surely doesn’t prove them wrong.

Today, Ohioans have to make a very difficult choice. It’s an abomination that more than 14,000 young people, people of color, poor people, and others are still facing charges in Ohio for activities which are legal just a few hundred miles away. It’s heartbreaking to know that patients can’t access this powerful medicine. Is it worth the price?

For decades, advocates have been pushing marijuana reforms forward for purposes of justice, and it turns out that a legal cannabis industry is a byproduct of good policy. Future investors seeking to expand markets must remember that justice is not a byproduct of industry.