Big Weed Spent Millions Legalizing Marijuana in Ohio, But Everyday Ohioans Will Bear the Cost

by | Dec 6, 2023 | War on Drugs

Pro-marijuana activists rack up another victory in 2023. Will voters regret it?

Major marijuana groups are celebrating their recent victory in Ohio after spending millions of dollars to pass a ballot initiative legalizing—and loosely regulating—marijuana in the ruby red state, outspending their opponents 12–1. Now residents and elected officials are facing a deluge of problems implementing the law amidst Ohio’s devastating fentanyl epidemic.

The November ballot measure, Issue 2, passed 57 percent to 43 percent, and ushered in loose regulations allowing for the cultivation, processing, and sale of recreational marijuana.

That in a state which became the leading state for drug overdoses in 2021, when officials reported 5,210 overdose deaths—a 27 percent increase since 2020 that’s sadly part of a steady increase over the last four years.

Considering the persisting drug issues in Ohio, one would think a large portion of the marijuana tax revenue would go to addiction services, but as of now, none of the revenue is allocated for that need.

Many Republican legislators are now working to amend the law, as they fear the language of the bill does not properly regulate THC strength or explain the allocation of tax revenue. They also question the intention of the law as it was written by the marijuana industry to legalize its own “cash crop.”

Republican lawmakers continue to fight against the new measure in Ohio, but a deeper issue remains for the rest of America. Who’s paying millions to legalize marijuana, and where are they going next?

The Marijuana Policy Project

Marijuana Policy Project

The map of marijuana legalization across America reveals a handful of key groups pumping millions into statewide initiatives. Of the groups in play, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is one of the more vicious.

MPP, which touts itself as the leading organization working to legalize marijuana, has passed 15 medical cannabis laws and run winning campaigns and legislative efforts in 13 of 23 states that have legalized marijuana.

The group is  a pro-cannabis juggernaut: In 2022 alone, MPP sponsored pro-marijuana ballot measures in South Dakota, North Dakota, Maryland, Missouri, and Arkansas. In 2023, it sponsored similar initiatives in Ohio and Oklahoma.

In Ohio alone MPP donated $2.8 million to the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the committee behind 2023’s Issue 2 and nearly 50 percent of all contributions to Issue 2 in Ohio. That proved enough to dramatically outspend the anti-Issue 2 campaign and secure a landslide victory in November.

Nationwide Sponsorships

All of MPP’s sponsored ballot measures show a similar disparity in dramatically outspending anti-pot groups.

In 2022, MPP supported Maryland Question 4. The measure was approved 67 to 32 percent. In total, the pro-marijuana advocates outspent the anti-marijuana advocates 70–1.

MPP supported the 2022 Missouri Amendment 3 which passed 53 to 47 percent. The pro-marijuana lobby spent nearly $10 million on the effort; the anti-weed lobby spent nothing.

In Arkansas, MPP-backed Issue 4 was defeated. Yet the pro-marijuana lobby outspent the anti-marijuana lobby 7–1, spending over $14 million.

In 2020, the Marijuana Policy project backed two ballot measures in Montana. The group spent over $100,000 on Montana CL-188 and I-90 to help the pro-marijuana lobby outspend the anti-marijuana lobby 24–1.

During the same year, the group also donated $60,000 to support South Dakota Initiated Measure 26 and Constitutional Amendment A. In total, the pro-marijuana lobby spent $2.3 million, and the anti-marijuana lobby spent $0.

The Marijuana Policy Project has sponsored pro-marijuana ballot measures and initiatives since 2010.

Paydirt

Of the total $6 million contributed to the Ohio pro-Issue 2 campaign, $5 million came from marijuana dispensaries and marijuana related service providers. The remaining $1 million largely came from political consultants, investment firms, campaign law firms, community organizers, and credit unions. Contributions from individuals came to just $21,000.

In total, the marijuana industry and adjacent businesses spent nearly $3.00 per vote compared with anti-Issue 2 groups, which spent merely $0.20 per vote.

One pair of community organizing groups behind Issue 2, the Ohio Organizers Collaborative and the Ohio Organizing Campaign (a.k.a Stand Up for Ohio), donated over $150,000 to the campaign. These left-wing group also supports “bail reform” (read: abolishing cash bail), student loan forgiveness,  and defunding the police—all the more problematic in states facing higher drug-induced crime rates.

Republicans Raise Concerns

In the wake of their defeat, Republican lawmakers and anti-marijuana activists went right to work condemning the poorly written and ill-defined law, announced that they plan to keep fighting to eventually overturn the poorly written law. “This fight is not over,” said Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action President Kevin Sabet. 

Sabet called on lawmakers to address certain provisions in the ballot measure—specifically targeting language that allows for commercial sales, advertising, and production— despite protests from MPP.

Republican Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman questioned the language of the measure, as it was written by those who stand to profit the most, the marijuana industry. “This statute was written by the marijuana industry and should not be treated as a cash grab for their cash crop at the expense of a state trying to emerge from the opioid epidemic,” he said.

On Nov. 16, Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman announced that the chamber agreed with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s (R) plan to edit the law before it takes effect on Dec. 7. “As this ramps up, it would be better for people going forward to know what the law is than people begin spending money or taking actions and then the law changes six months from now,” Huffman announced.

Many Ohio residents expressed interest in finding further clarification as to what the tax revenue could be used for. “Obviously people have a lot of suggestions when there’s a new channel of money,” he continued.

The adaptations to the law may also be bipartisan, as Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D) believes Democrats and Republicans can find common ground. “I have a feeling that there are some things that we can agree on. We just have to look at it and have further discussion,” Antonio said.

One suggestion both Huffman and Antonio would like to see implemented is using revenue to help post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in law enforcement. Huffman would also like to see greater limitations placed on the THC content, or potency, of cannabis products.

On November 15, Republican Ohio state Rep. Cindy Abrams introduced House Bill 326, which, if passed, allocates a portion of the cannabis tax revenue to law enforcement officers.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen with all the other percentages. I’m focusing on getting $40 million a year right from the top for law enforcement training,” Abrams said. “Our first responders are going to be the ones who ultimately respond, sadly, to the fatal car crash or the auto accident with injuries or any plethora of 911 calls that are going to come in.”

It’s Never Over

Marijuana legalization funded by pro-marijuana advocacy groups and the industry itself will continue to sweep the country state by state unless anti-marijuana groups and individuals begin contributing funding that matches the pro-marijuana groups. Last month, MPP announced a new arm: the MPP Cannabis Justice Fund, which aims to “significantly boost” pro-marijuana policies nationwide.

The only question left is, which state is next?

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