Marijuana will likely make a second appearance on the Ohio ballot in November.
But don’t expect a revisit from Buddie, the caped pot bud mascot from last year’s failed legalization campaign.
This year’s plan to legalize medicinal marijuana in Ohio is dramatically different from the 2015 bid by ResponsibleOhio, which created the cheeky mascot and featured reality television star and investor Nick Lachey in commercials.
“There’s no chance that Buddie will make a repeat appearance this time around,” said Chris Walsh, editor of Marijuana Business Daily. “Hopefully that whole costume has been burned in a bonfire because that was a disaster.”
Marijuana industry veterans widely criticized ResponsibleOhio’s plan to legalize pot for what they described as a glib and embarrassing campaign advertising.
Purists hated the idea of restricting grow licenses to wealthy investors, and they thought trying to legalize recreational and medicinal marijuana in one fell swoop in Ohio – something no state had ever done before – was doomed.
They were right.
The marijuana proposal known as Issue 3 did not win in a single county in November’s election, with 65 percent of voters saying no.
After such a resounding defeat, Walsh expected it would be years before anyone else tried to legalize marijuana in Ohio.
But in January 2016, the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Policy announced that it would put medical marijuana on Ohio’s fall ballot.
“We felt it was great opportunity to move forward with a well-written medical marijuana law here,” said MPP spokesman Mason Tvert.
It turns out that while ResponsibleOhio failed in the voting booth, it may have succeeded in starting a conversation about legalizing marijuana here, said Doug Berman, an Ohio State University professor and marijuana law expert.
“Most of the disaffinity for voters with Issue 3 … wasn’t based around ‘We don’t want reform at all,’ It was based around the type of reform that was being put forward,” Berman said.
The MPP, the largest organization working solely on marijuana policy reform in the nation, has a long history of changing state laws.
“With the Marijuana Policy Project being behind it, there is a really good chance it will be on the Ohio ballot and it will pass,” Walsh said. “This group knows what it is doing.”
Ohio is one of nine states that will likely have some form of marijuana legalization on the ballot this November.
A presidential election year typically brings high voter turnout and attracts young people to the polls who usually favor legalizing marijuana.
“Everyone has been looking for 2016 for a while now as a potentially watershed year for the marijuana industry,” Walsh said.
Troy Dayton, CEO of ArcView, a network of marijuana investors with $70 million behind 108 companies, sees 2016 as a historic year for the expanding industry.
“I don’t believe there has ever been a time in U.S. history when an issue has been on the ballot nine times at once,” Dayton said. “I think this is going to be a really pivotal year for the cannabis industry and the movement.”
Ohio has an impressive national stature both for its mainstream values and its prominence as a bellwether state in elections. A victory here for the cannabis industry would be a real prize.
“People look to Ohio as a gage of where the country is heading,” Tvert said. “I think it would be a signal if the heart of America demonstrates that medical marijuana is legitimate and people need to have access to it.”
Ultimately, the MPP is hoping to sway Congress to change banking and tax laws that are blocking the marijuana industry’s growth. Although marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, federal law forbids banks from taking money from the industry and cannabis businesses don’t enjoy federal tax deductions.
“We hope to see some of the Congressional members in Ohio start to rethink their positions on this issue,” Tvert said.
And Ohio could be the swing state on federal reform, Walsh said.
“If Ohio legalizes medical marijuana, it sends a strong message to the federal government that this is here to stay and you’ve got to figure out a way to deal with this on federal level,” Walsh said.
To reach that goal, MPP plans to run a serious advertising campaign in Ohio that focuses on testimonials from ill people who believe marijuana can help them. Medical professionals will describe the benefits marijuana has on patients, and the importance of this legislation, Tvert said.
“This is a very serious issue and it will be a very serious campaign,” Tvert said. “We’re talking about ensuring that people who are suffering life-threatening and debilitating conditions can access a product to improve the quality of their lives.”
Soon after MPP announced it would place medicinal marijuana on the 2016 ballot, Ohio lawmakers began taking a serious look at the issue.
MPP is proposing an amendment to Ohio’s constitution to legalize marijuana. This would limit the flexibility state legislators have to change marijuana law in the future, Berman said.
“So the General Assembly will move more aggressively forward and try to get something enacted if it remains afraid the MPP will put something in front of voters,” Berman said.
Last week Sen. Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights, told WCPO he is drafting a bill with Sen. Dave Burke, R-Marysville, which would legalize medical marijuana. The two senators have traveled around the state to gather input on the issue.
Even if legislators are successful in passing a new law, it may contain too many restrictions that block sick patients from accessing medical marijuana, at least from MPP’s perspective.
“We’re not going to just assume they’ll get it done,” Tvert said. “We’ll cross that bridge if it ever gets built … If they pass a good law that adequately meets the needs of citizens, then that’s something we’ll take into consideration.”
And the MPP may have the upper hand. A Quinnipiac University poll from October 2015 showed 90 percent of Ohio voters in support of medicinal marijuana.
“My gut feeling is this will pass,” said Kris Krane, co-founder and managing partner of marijuana consulting firm 4Front Ventures. “This will appeal to a much broader range of people than the last go-around. It will probably be better run, more focused and better tested than the first go-around was.”
In the meantime, state lawmakers will continue to craft a bill, and the MPP will collect signatures. It has until the first week of July to collect at least 305,591 valid signatures, according to the website of its state operation, Ohioans for Medical Marijuana.
“These are trains moving on parallel tracks that are keeping an eye on the other,” Berman said. “We’ll have a keen sense by Memorial Day if we have a serious bill get to the governor’s desk this year.”