ResponsibleOhio shuffles mix of pot investors

Posted at 7:47 AM, Oct 02, 2015

CINCINNATI - The Chicago investors are out and the Hula Hoop heir is in at ResponsibleOhio, the well-financed campaign that seeks a constitutional change to make Ohio the first state to legalize pot for medical and recreational use in the same ballot issue.

The campaign delivered details on the investor change in a meeting with WCPO’s editorial board Wednesday. ResponsibleOhio Executive Director Ian James said Chicago investor Ben Kovler has been replaced as lead investor for a Stark County growth site by Brian Kessler, a Mahoning Valley native whose father invented the Hula Hoop.

Ten investment groups pledged $2 million each to get the ResponsibleOhio amendment on the ballot and finance a campaign to secure its passage. If they’re successful, those 10 groups will have the exclusive right to supply the Ohio marijuana industry with pot grown at factory farms, including three in southwest Ohio.

The campaign has publicly identified about two dozen investors, but at least 30 have yet to be named.

“Voters don’t care about that,” James said. “What they care about is (whether this is) being done the right way. Is this the proper way to legalize marijuana? Is the state of Ohio going to be better off legalizing it or is it not?”

Kessler was initially introduced in media accounts as a co-investor with Kovler, a Chicago-based investment banker and CEO of Green Thumb Industries, an equipment vendor to marijuana growers. Kovler raised just over $1 million from 23 investors late last year to finance his ResponsibleOhio commitments, according to a Jan. 8 securities filing. His partner in the Ohio growth site was Peter Kadens, president and CEO of SoCore Energy.

Both men and all 23 of their unnamed investors left the ResponsibleOhio campaign in August, James told WCPO’s editorial board yesterday.

“They’ve got a license in Illinois” and concluded that leaving Ohio will let them focus “on their core business,” James said.

Green Thumb Industries in February won three of 18 licenses awarded by the state of Illinois, allowing Kovler to establish marijuana growth facilities for medical dispensaries. Kovler told the Quad City Times he will invest $10 million in a 44,000 cultivation center that will employ 30 to 35 people.

Kessler is the founder and CEO of Maui Toys of Youngstown, whose products include the Skyball – the “highest bouncing ball ever made” – and Wave Hoop, a Hula Hoop with water inside that makes it “10 times easier than a regular hoop,” according to the company’s promotional materials.

James said Kessler is a veteran of the medical marijuana industry. His name appeared on a 2014 list of applicants for medical dispensary licenses in the city of Las Vegas.

James said Kessler is working with ResponsibleOhio co-founder James Gould to bring additional investors to his group, but couldn’t provide any details on who or how many investors will join.

“He’s really engaged in this,” James said. “He’s up in the valley right now, talking to chambers of commerce, talking to different groups. He’s strongly and energetically involved in the campaign.”

James said he is “95 percent confident” that Issue 3 will be approved by Ohio voters on Nov. 3. The group’s recent polling indicates 57 percent of Ohioans want marijuana to be legal and more than 50 percent support the ResponsibleOhio amendment.

“We’re exactly where I thought we’d be,” he said.

When campaign finance reports are released Oct. 22, James said they’re “very” likely to show that ResponsibleOhio has raised more than the $20 million pledged by its key investors.

“We’ve got folks that literally are coming in and watching this and asking what they can do. They want to be a part of this new industry,” he said. “So, some folks have stroked a check to like a thousand bucks. Some for $2,500. They’re literally saying the only way that I can become a ganjepreneur is if this wins. So, they’ve stepped up.”