Pot legalization: 9 things to know before voting

Posted at 7:21 AM, Oct 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-20 07:21:11-04

CINCINNATI - Ohio voters have that chance to make history Nov. 3 as they weigh a measure that would make the Buckeye state the first in the nation to legalize medical and recreational marijuana at the same time.

In a recent poll by Kent State University, 56 percent of those surveyed said the plan to vote yes on Issue 3 -- the proposal led by Columbus-based political action committee ResponsibleOhio that would make medical and recreational marijuana sales legal for those 21 and older.

Already, 23 states have medical marijuana laws on the books, and last year Colorado became the first state to allow retail sales of the drug.

For a look at life after legalization, WCPO reporters Lisa Bernard-Kuhn and Emily Maxwell in April traveled across Colorado, touring pot dispensaries, interviewing lawmakers, business owners and residents to better understand what the impact could be in Ohio.

READ WCPO’s SPECIAL REPORT - The Weed Revolution: The race for legal pot in Ohio

As voters weigh what’s at stake, here are nine insights to consider about what the evolving marijuana industry could mean for the Buckeye state:

1) Tax revenues from pot won’t save government budgets

Already, the projected tax revenues have some politicians in Ohio talking pot.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley told WCPO earlier this year that while he’s not taking a position on pot, he’d like to use any tax revenue sent to the city from it to fill potholes and "address deferred maintenance for our infrastructure."

Under ResponsibleOhio’s plan, Ohio would place a 15 percent tax on the drug’s sale, 55 percent of which would go to cities and townships.

But returns from Colorado’s first year of retail pot sales might serve as cautionary tale for those who believe tax revenues from pot sales here will be a windfall for local budgets. Tax revenues from retail marijuana sales came in at $44 million in 2014 – far below the $70 million officials had estimated.

“The message I’ve been trying to get across to people is, if you’re going to legalize marijuana, there are a lot of arguments for why it would be beneficial to the state; I don’t believe tax revenue is one of those things,”  Andrew Freedman, director of Marijuana Coordination for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, told WCPO.

2) Banking and pot don’t mix
Because marijuana is still federally illegal, few banks will do business with the new pot start-ups, fearing they'll be shut down by regulators for supporting drug dealers.It’s a reality that thousands of business owners in Colorado and others states face – forcing them to deal in stacks of cash for everything from paying their employees to keeping their lights on.

Many have hired security firms to man their storefronts and help ship their piles of cash to off-site facilities where they stash and store piles of cash in locked vaults.

"It’s flat-out a public safety issue,” said Andy Williams, an owner of a Denver-area dispensary, told WCPO in April. “Anyone around me and my employees is at risk and could be targeted.”

Officials with ResponsibleOhio say they’re well aware of the issues, but think the groundswell of states moving toward recreational legalization could tip the federal position on the issue.

“There is slowly but surely an understanding that this is inevitable,” James said.

3) This isn’t your hippy parents weed

Spend any time in a legal marijuana dispensary and you will quickly encounter a Willy Wonka-style smorgasbord of candies, brownies, chocolates, gummies, cookies all crafted to get you high.

The pot-laced products, also known as edibles, are growing in popularity among old and new weed consumers.

More than 2.85 million edibles were sold in Colorado in 2014, three times the amount sold in 2013.

But as more consumers give edibles a try, Colorado policymakers have hustled to figure out ways to regulate them as a host of problems emerged.

Early in 2014, some consumers reported finding mold and feces in their products. Others said they got too high after eating edibles with large amounts of THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. And increasingly, there are reports of the drugs getting into the hands of children.

Under its plan, ResponsibleOhio says edibles won’t be a problem for the Buckeye state like they have been out West.

The group’s amendment includes a provision that would create a subcommittee of a to-be-created Marijuana Control Commission charged solely with crafting regulations around edibles.

“They will create the framework around how we test every edible to make sure we’re meeting the right safety requirements,” James said.

4) Border squabbles could threaten resources

As efforts to legalize marijuana pick up across the country,friction is building between pro-pot states and those fighting to keep the drug out.

The conflicts are sparking costly legal battles and draining resources in neighboring states as law enforcement hustles to stop legal weed from crossing into territory where it's still banned. It's an issue that could soon matter in our Tri-State should Ohio become the first state to legalize recreational and medical marijuana at the same time.

“If pot becomes legal in Ohio — and can be bought and sold in Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo and Cleveland — that’s going to put a lot of pressure on neighboring states,” said Robert Mikos, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School and drug law expert.

It’s not just Kentuckians and Hoosiers who could flock to Ohio to buy their weed, Mikos said.

“People will come in from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois and even New York to buy it,” he said. “It could trigger a backlash or accelerate the move by other states to follow suit.”

5) Medical benefits versus other public health impacts

Pro-pot groups across Ohio and the nation say a growing body of research prove that marijuana plants can provide a host of medical benefits for individuals suffering from everything from cancer to epilepsy, sleeping disorders and much more.

READ WCPO’s Special Report: Relief for Addyson  - one family’s journey for medial marijuana.

Meanwhile, opponents of legalization argue there are a host of other public health impacts to consider – including misuse of the drugs by children and adults.

A report study published this year by Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program found:

• More than 70 percent of driving-under-the-influence cases handled by the Colorado State Highway Patrol involved marijuana use in 2014.

• Marijuana-related expulsions from schools have climbed to more than 5,200 in 2014: up from less than 3,800 in 2009, before medical marijuana was legal.

• Emergency room visits caused by marijuana use have climbed to 515 in the first six months of 2014, compared to 438 for all of 2013 and 387 for 2012.

• The number of marijuana-related exposures for children 5 and under climbed to 38 in 2014, compared to 24 in 2013, and 15 in 2012.

• There were more than 350 cases in 2014 in which illegal amounts of marijuana were seized from vehicles “destined for other states.” That’s up nearly 600 percent from 2013.

6)  Budding industry, or controlled monopoly?

Under ResponsibleOhio’s plan, most of the marijuana would be grown at 10 sites across the state, including three in Southwest Ohio – all owned by ResponsibleOhio backers.  Marijuana would then be purchased and resold by as many as 1,100 retail sites.

ResponsibleOhio estimates the marijuana industry would bring in $554 million in new Ohio tax revenue by 2020. Another  source - the Marijuana Policies of Ohio Taskforce, led by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters -  found legal pot businesses could create more than 30,000 jobs and pump nearly $7 billion into the state’s economy.

Still, others argue ResponsibleOhio’s plan would largely line the pockets of the investors behind this push for legal pot.

7) Pushback aplenty

Ohio lawmakers have backed a constitutional amendment aimed at preventing monopolies from being written into the state’s constitution.

The effort would revise Ohio's constitution to prohibit amendments that deliver economic benefits to individuals and cartels — including investors in 10 designated marijuana-growing sites named in ResponsibleOhio's pot legalization issue. If both Issue 2 and Issue 3 pass, expect the courts to get involved to determine which measure will hold up.

8) This is bigger than Ohio

Legalizing pot in Ohio is likely to garner national attention as voters take up the issue, and the outcome could have a big impact on marijuana reform efforts across the country.

"Ohio is a big state that's always important in presidential races, and if the state were to legalize this year, it would put more pressure on the (presidential) candidates to either support or at least move into a position of tolerating it," said Robert Mikos, a professor of Law at Vanderbuilt University. "It also could have major ramifications for the Midwest and East Coast states that might tip them to consider (legalization)."

9) What exactly is in the plan?

To read it in full visit  ResponsibleOhio’s site here.