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Ohio's Legal Weed Proposal Could Create the World’s First 'Pot Grower Oligarchy'

Voters in Ohio will have the opportunity to legalize marijuana in November, but the proposed law would allow a small, wealthy group to control growing in the state.
Photo by Andres Cristaldo/EPA

Ohio voters will have the opportunity to legalize the commercial cultivation and sale of cannabis this November, including for medical marijuana patients and recreational consumers. A constitutional amendment that officially qualified for the ballot this week would allow adults 21 and over in the state to grow four plants and possess eight ounces of marijuana at home. But the measure is controversial within the pro-marijuana legalization community, and has even united some pot activists and conservative Republicans in opposition.


Critics say the proposal, called the Marijuana Legalization Amendment, would create a "pot grower oligarchy" by limiting commercial marijuana cultivation to just 10 sites in the state, rooted to specific land parcels that wealthy financial backers of the amendment have already acquired.

An ad-hoc group called ResponsibleOhio, which was conceived and created by veteran Democratic Ohio political consultant Ian James, is backing the amendment. According to the Center for Public Integrity, James has "wrangled together investors willing to bankroll a $20 million campaign, sink in an additional $20 million to buy the land and $300 million more to build facilities."

Critics on both sides of the marijuana debate fear this system would create an unprecedented, constitutionally protected monopoly on marijuana production, which could stifle market competition and critically limit consumer choice, particularly among medical users.

Related: Legally Grown Pot Still Has a Toxic Pesticide Problem

"[A] big concern for a lot of activists is that the next generation of leadership in the marijuana industry will be disconnected from the ideals that have pushed the movement forward," Sri Kavuru, president of Ohioans to End Prohibition, which plans to run its own legalization initiative in 2016, told VICE News. "They will be focused solely on the money, and when that motivation drives public policy, you start seeing things like artificially high prices, and tight regulations that are passed under the guise of public safety but don't really have anything to do with protecting the public."


Kavuru officially opposes ResponsibleOhio's legalization effort. He even joined law enforcement and other pot prohibitionists by testifying in favor of a separate constitutional amendment added to this November's ballot by the Republican-led state legislature that would prohibit any "constitutional amendment that would grant a monopoly" to any person or business interest.

Should both the legalization and the "anti-monopoly" amendments pass, experts, including Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, predict the anti-monopoly measure will be enacted first, potentially nipping legalization in the bud.

Watch the VICE News documentary, Inside America's Billion-Dollar Weed Business: The Grass Is Greener:

Backers of the "anti-monopoly amendment" publicly maintain it's not specifically aimed at ResponsibleOhio, but Ian James told VICE News that claim is "horseshit," and called it the "drug dealer protection act." He also disputed the very idea that commercial cultivation limits constitute a monopoly.

"We've structured our initiative in a way that those 10 license holders will have to compete, because if they collude in any way, they will lose their licenses," he said. "And if they don't meet the demands of consumers, including medical consumers, the state will add licenses until that demand is met."

James said his amendment would create an industry, not a monopoly, since there is a home-grow provision, and any Ohioan could apply to own and operate one of more than 1,150 retail marijuana stores, medical marijuana dispensaries, and cannabis testing facilities.


Related: Weed Growers Are Desperate for Water Amid California's Drought

The Center for Public Integrity, however, points out that the wealthy backers of ResponsibleOhio and the Marijuana Legalization Amendment were "promised guaranteed ownership of a wholesale marijuana market potentially worth more than $1 billion" per year, according to a prospectus that James provided to investors.

Those investors include former NBA star Oscar Robertson, fashion designer Nanette Lepore, and former Cleveland Browns defensive end Frostee Rucker.

Many others remain unknown, however, since much of the amendment's bankroll has flowed in through newly created limited liability corporations, according to a Security and Exchange Commission filing. Meanwhile, James' own consulting company, the Strategy Network, plans to bill nearly $6 million for its services in drafting the amendment and running the campaign.

James told VICE News he's smoked "his fair share" of pot, including as a student at Ohio University, and called himself a "dyed in the wool liberal," but said passing marijuana legalization in a politically conservative battleground state like Ohio requires "moving from a tie-dyed model to a tightly regulated suit and tie model." Marijuana is currently legal for recreational use in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Washington, DC.

'They will be focused solely on the money.'

"Over the last 20 years, various lawmakers in the statehouse have tried to pass legalization and it just went nowhere," he said, noting that previous efforts to put cannabis reform amendments before voters also failed due to lack of resources.


For the most part, national leaders of the marijuana legalization movement have taken a "hold their noses" approach to ResponsibleOhio. Groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project have offered qualified support for the amendment as a vast improvement on the failed status quo of prohibition, while distancing themselves from the effort's more monopolistic aspects.

"We've fought for a long time to end marijuana prohibition for civil rights, social justice, public health, and public safety reasons, and to create a legal market," Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann told Alternet. "So to then have some folks come along trying to create a constitutionally-mandated oligopoly kind of sticks in everybody's craw…. Aside from the oligopoly provision, however, it's actually pretty good."

Mason Tvert, Marijuana Policy Project's director of communications, added that while it's not the kind of initiative his group would ever draft, "it would get the job done," and so it's now up to Ohio voters to decide for themselves, he told Alternet.

Tvert also offered a note of caution for more idealistic marijuana reformers willing to publicly oppose ResponsibleOhio.

"If they want to end marijuana prohibition, they need to weigh their opposition to this initiative against the possibility of having to wait longer for a better one," he said.

Related: Medical Marijuana Patients Are Getting Fired — And There's Not Much They Can Do About It

Nicole Scholten, a spokeswoman for Ohio Families CANN, a group that advocates for pediatric medical marijuana patients, told VICE News that she also has conflicted views about ResponsibleOhio. As the mother of an 11-year-old girl with a "catastrophic form of epilepsy," Scholten has been seeking safe access to medical cannabis for her own daughter for the past two years, since learning how specifically tailored medical marijuana treatments are already profoundly benefiting children in other states with similar conditions.

"Since long before the ResponsibleOhio ballot initiative announced its existence, we have been calling, writing, educating, and visiting elected officials and medical professionals in the state of Ohio seeking access to this lifesaving medicine," she said. "I'm not offended by profit, but I am concerned that the restricted grow situation under ResponsibleOhio's plan could stand in the way of the production of the amount and variety of cannabis that children like my daughter Lucy need.

"So far the state legislature has offered us no tangible action to benefit our kids, but parents like me still deserve more than to just hope this new amendment will work for us," Scholten added. "We need a guarantee."

Follow David Bienenstock on Twitter: @pot_handbook