Big Businesses and Nick Lachey Are Trying to Dominate Ohio's Future Legal Weed Industry
Ohio will vote Tuesday on a ballot initiative that would end marijuana prohibition, but create a monopoly on the legal weed industry in the state.
Tomorrow, Ohio voters will vote on Issue 3, a measure that will have profound effects on the future of marijuana in their state. If it passes, the state's constitution would be amended to legalize the possession, cultivation, and use of marijuana and marijuana-infused products such as edibles and concentrates for Ohioans 21 or older. This wouldn't just legalize medical marijuana—it would be a full-on legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
There's a catch to Issue 3, and it's a fairly significant one: only ten facilities would be allowed to grow and sell marijuana commercially, and they just so happen to be owned by the ten LLCs that make up ResponsibleOhio, the political action committee that proposed the initiative.
The names behind the ResponsibleOhio come with a whiff of big business: Paul Heldman of NG Green Investments is a former executive at the grocery giant Kroger; Alan Mooney of Abhang Co. is a former advisor at AIG and owns a wealth advisory company. Frank Wood of DGF LLC is a venture capitalist. Also on the list of ResponsibleOhio backers are NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson and fashion designer Nanette Lepore.
Perhaps the most surprising name attached to the group, however, is Nick Lachey: former boy band star, ex-husband of Jessica Simpson, and perennial D-list celebrity. He's part of a company called Verdure GCE LLC, along with William "Cheney" Pruett and John Humphrey, both of whom ResponsibleOhio lists as "finance executives." If Issue 3 passes, Verdure would own a 30-acre grow site in Summit County, Ohio.
Through a representative, Lachey declined to speak with VICE about his involvement in the ballot initiative. He did, however, take the time to appear in this 30-second ad that's been airing on Ohio television. In the ad, Lachey, using all the gravitas a dude who once took the lead vocal on "Because of You" can physically muster, looks into the camera and says, "Ohio is my home. I care very deeply about the people here, which is why I'm very proud to be part of the movement that's going to create jobs, reinvigorate our economy and improve the safety of our cities."
The ad then cuts to a young woman in a coffee shop, who offers, "It'll give me a chance to open a business! Or pay off my college loans!" Then it cuts to another young woman, holding a backpack in the street, says, "Legalizing marijuana will provide tax revenue for local safety services. Let's do what the politicians haven't done. For marijuana legalization, vote 'No' on 2, and 'Yes' on 3."
This last part is a reference to a second ballot initiative that Ohioans will vote on Tuesday, one that makes the legalization situation even more complicated. That initiative, know as Issue 2 or the Ohio Initiated Monopolies Amendment, would "prohibit an initiated constitutional amendment that would grant a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel, specify or determine a tax rate, or confer a commercial interest, right, or license to any person or nonpublic entity." While the amendment doesn't specifically mention marijuana, it seems specifically designed to block the passage of marijuana legalization in the state. Because as its name suggests, the amendment could nullify Issue 3 for violating Ohio's constitution.
"Lawmakers don't want marijuana legalization to come to Ohio," ResponsibleOhio spokesperson Faith Oltman told VICE.
Aaron Weaver, the president of Citizens Against ResponsibleOhio, sees things a bit differently. His group supports marijuana legalization, but opposes Issue 3 on the basis that it would create an unfair business environment. "There's a fine line when it comes to public policy," Weaver said in a phone interview last week. He described ResponsibleOhio's stance as, "Hey, we'll legalize [marijuana], we'll even make it a free market for you guys, but everybody's gotta chop off their left foot if they want it to pass."
Oltman denied that Issue 3 would create a monopoly. "It's been tough to communicate to people because 'monopoly' just makes sense to people," she said in a phone interview. "You know, 'monopoly' is one word and people don't like the idea of one or two people getting wealthy off of something, but when you look a little bit deeper and you learn more about the proposal and what we're putting forth, it's about a lot of people sharing in the wealth of this multi-billion dollar industry at all levels."
Watch "Baked Alaska," VICE News' documentary on marijuana legalization in America's last frontier
Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that lobbies on behalf of marijuana law reform, told VICE that the hodgepodge group of investors that make up ResponsibleOhio is another sign that the marijuana industry is taking steps towards legitimacy. Still, he said, "It's concerning that these don't seem to be people with knowledge about marijuana, the industry, or marijuana policies. But I'm sure they can hire people that do."
Fox noted that ResponsibleOhio has already hit one minor PR snafu. The group's mascot—yes, the PAC has a mascot—is "Buddie," a superhero whose head is a giant marijuana bud.
"Buddie's counterproductive," said Fox. "He opens up the campaign to a lot of the criticism that prohibitionists are trying to use." Namely, he explained, the cuddly mascot suggests that Ohio's weed industry is going to take a page from alcohol and tobacco companies and market their product to kids.
Public opinion on legalization in Ohio remains split going into Tuesday's vote. A recent Bowling Green State University survey deemed the issue "too close to call," finding that 44 percent of Ohioans support Issue 3, while 56 percent support Issue 2. Generally speaking, Fox told VICE, "going into [a vote] with less than 60 percent support on Election Day is risky."
So what happens if Issues 2 and 3 both pass? It's not quite clear, although Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has said that Issue 2 would take precedent.
In last Wednesday's Republican presidential debate, Ohio Governor John Kasich indicated that he was not a fan of Issue 3. Asked by moderator Carl Quintanilla if, "given the budget pressures in Ohio and other states," marijuana tax revenue might be a revenue stream he would like to have, Kasich responded: "Well, first of all, we're running a $2 billion dollar surplus, we're not having a revenue problem right now. And sending mixed signals to kids about drugs is a disaster."
"Drugs is one of the greatest scourge in this country," Kasich continued, "and I spent five years of my administration working with my team to do a whole sort of things to try to reign in the problem of overdoses, and it goes on and on. We could do a whole show on that."
Oltman told me she believes the issue could end up being decided in court. "It's very confusing and there is no clear answer although I believe, and I think ResponsibleOhio believes, if both issues pass there will be some kind of lawsuit. I mean, that seems to be the only certain. The people who passed Issue 2 to the legislature can't even agree on what the correct path would be. So it will probably be litigated."
No matter the results of Tuesday's vote, Allen St. Pierre of NORML foresees a long legal battle ahead. "The rush to the courthouse in Columbus on Wednesday morning, you don't want to be in the way of those lawyers," St. Pierre told VICE. "They are going to be trying to be the first one in the door to file papers, no matter who wins or loses. Whoever wants to see that on Wednesday will see one hell of a race to the courthouse."
St. Pierre related what might be the ultimate takeaway from the Ohio marijuana legalization debate. "For us, ending prohibition is the primary goal. Being upset about who you're buying your weed from, legally, that is secondary concern."
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