If Ohio legalizes pot, national policy may shift

Posted at 12:01 PM, Oct 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-20 12:01:43-04

CINCINNATI -- Chris Walsh, editor of Marijuana Business Daily, faced a hard choice when he was trying to decide whether to send a reporter to Columbus on Election Day.

He had to weigh the expense of travel for the Denver-based reporter with the likelihood that Issue 3 would pass and make Ohio the first state in the nation to legalize medicinal and recreational marijuana all at once.

“It’s a coin flip right now," Walsh said. "It could go either way." 

In the end, Walsh approved the reporter’s trip on Nov. 3 because he couldn’t risk missing the top story of the year.

“There’s a lot of interest in Ohio," he said. "Everyone is watching that market." 

In the coming weeks, Ohio voters will make a choice about legalizing marijuana that could impact the future of the marijuana industry in the United States.

Even more dramatic is the after-effect it could have on the 2016 presidential race. If young voter turnout is high and pot becomes legal, it may sway presidential candidates to soften their stances on the issue in order to win young voters in such a crucial swing state, experts say.

“We could not have a better pure test of how this issue is going to play circa 2015 than what we’re having right now in Ohio,” said Doug Berman, an Ohio State University professor who teaches a class on marijuana law.

“Younger and minority voters are the voters who are hard to get motivated, and there aren’t that many issues that obviously appeal to them in a purely political way,” Berman said.

Buddie, ResponsibleOhio's pot bud mascot

Division in Marijuana Industry Over Mascot Buddie 

What’s happening in Ohio is a divisive, heated topic in the cannabis industry.

“There’s definitely a division in the marijuana industry on whether this is good or bad measure,” Walsh said. “Even hardcore marijuana advocates are coming out against this, which you rarely see.”

ResponsibleOhio’s plan is controversial because marijuana could only be grown at 10 designated sites in Ohio that are owned by their deep-pocketed campaign backers. It is how the group has been able to fund such a massively expensive campaign to get the issue on the ballot.

Opponents argue that this creates a monopoly, or a cartel, and limits the free enterprise that other states have.

The Marijuana Policy Project generally supports measures to make marijuana legal, but the group is staying quiet for this campaign.

"Ohioans will have to determine if Issue 3 is the best way for the state to do that," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for MPP. "We are maintaining neutrality in this particular campaign."

Another source of controversy is ResponsibleOhio's hokey, pot bud mascot,  "Buddie."

ResponsibleOhio unveiled this caped green mascot a few months ago to appeal to young voters. And when “Buddie” arrives on college campuses, he is swarmed by students who want photos, said Ian James, executive director of ResponsibleOhio.

But cannabis veterans don’t share the same enthusiasm.

“A mascot for marijuana legalization doesn’t work,” Walsh said. “It's basically unheard of. It’s one of the things that makes people in this industry cringe. It’s embarrassing.”

Kris Krane, co-founder and managing partner of marijuana consulting firm 4FrontVentures, was more blunt: “It’s childish and stupid.”

“For so long we fought really hard to be taken seriously and not look like a bunch of dumb stoners,” Krane said. “Now we’re finally a point of real political traction … and these guys do something so childish and immature. It’s frustrating.”

While Krane doesn’t like “Buddie” or Ohio’s plan -- and doesn’t want it duplicated in other states -- he admits that he would likely “hold his nose and vote for it,” if he lived here because thinks it could help legalization nationwide.

“If Ohio passes legalized marijuana, its incredibly important,” Krane said.

Not only is Ohio the only state with legalized marijuana on the ballot this year, but it is a purple state, crucial in the presidential election, and a traditional Midwestern state, apart from outlier states such as Colorado where recreational marijuana is already legal, he said.

“I think it will send a signal that this is a mainstream political issue,” Krane said.

Will Ohio’s Pot Plan Sway the Presidential Election?

Berman teaches a popular marijuana law class, which students jokingly call “Weed 101,” and is a national expert on the issue.

But even he can’t say for sure if voters will pass legalized marijuana in Ohio.

“The only thing I can say with any confidence is if it turns out that we get an unusually large young voter turnout, I predict Issue 3 will prevail,” he said.

Meanwhile experts are keeping a close eye on polls.

Two recent polls -- one by Quinnipiac University and the other by Kent State University -- revealed that a majority of Ohio voters support legalizing the personal use of marijuana. 

In the Quinnipiac poll, 53 percent of Ohio voters support legalizing "small amounts of marijuana for personal use" while 44 were opposed it. And 90 percent support legalized medical marijuana.

The Kent poll, which was commissioned by WKYC in Cleveland, had similar results: 58 percent favored "personal use" and 84 percent favored medical use.

That poll also asked for opinions on Issue 3, which would legalize marijuana, and Issue 2, which would ban a monopoly or cartel. If both issues passed, experts predict a fight that will likely end in court.

Berman believes these polls are optimistic toward voter support of legalizing marijuana here.

“Both polls have shifted my gut expectation, from ‘I think it will lose close,’ to ‘I think it will win close,’” Berman said. “People who dislike the status quo are much more likely to show up and vote for reform, than those who like status quo.”

Whatever happens, it is certain that national political experts will be digging into the poll data searching for clues that may be useful in the 2016 presidential race, Berman said.

Ohio will be crucial to the race for the White House next year, and arguably the most important voting bloc are millennial voters.

If legalizing marijuana draws young voters to the polls, it may prompt Democrats and Republicans to lean toward supporting the issue. And conversely, candidates may criticize opponents who don’t support legalized pot as old and outdated, experts said.

“Democrats are going to feel emboldened, particularly at the local level, to really put the screws to their opponents,” Berman said.

But the “real question” is whether what happens in Ohio forces more conservative Republican presidential candidates to embrace legalized marijuana -- or at least medical marijuana -- Berman said.

“If this passes and it does move the needle on youth voter turnout … it sends a really strong signal,” Krane said.

He wonders if Democratic strategists will support legalized marijuana plans in other swing states, such as Michigan and Missouri, in 2016, to boost young voter turnout.

And he is keeping an eye on Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton. At the first Democratic presidential debate, she said she wasn’t ready to take a position yet on recreational marijuana, but did support medical marijuana.

“Ohio might sway Hillary to change her position,” Krane said.

“She doesn’t want to be seen by millennials as a relic of old-time politics, especially if she goes up against a young candidate like Marco Rubio,” Krane said. “She’s going to need something to bring out young voters.”