CINCINNATI – To hear Cincinnati’s James Gould tell the story, medical marijuana is legal in Ohio today because he never gave up, and he had the influence and money to help make it happen.
Gould is the Downtown-based venture capitalist and deep pockets behind ResponsibleOhio -- the 2015 campaign that bet big on legalizing marijuana and overwhelmingly lost.
The proposal – Issue 3 – would have written into Ohio’s constitution an investor-driven plan that allowed its financial backers the first shot at growing legal marijuana across the state. It was quickly branded a monopoly by critics and called “terrible” and “foolish” by other pro-pot groups. Ohio’s legislature even fought the plan and voters rejected the measure, with 65 percent shooting it down.
But looking back, Gould says the more than $20 million campaign effort wasn’t a lost cause.
“Without RepsonsibleOhio and our gang of investors, we would not have the law we have today,” said 67-year-old Gould, whose resume boasts lucrative tenures as a professional sports agent, big deals with Donald Trump and a recently founded holding company Green Light Acquisitions that has investments in cannabis startups in Nevada and California.
“None of this would be happening today if we hadn’t paid our dues, scorched earth and moved the conversation in Ohio from if to when,” Gould said.
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On Thursday, less than a year after Gould offered up his concession speech for Issue 3, Ohio’s new medical marijuana laws are officially hitting the books. It’s not the plan that Gould or his business partner at Green Light, Ian James, originally envisioned, but their fingerprints and influence are there.
“On Election night, we said we’ll be back,” Gould said. “We didn’t say how. We didn’t say with who. We just never quit.”
How we got here, according to Gould
Until Gould and James came on the scene, few Ohio politicians were eager to broach the topic of marijuana legalization, says Doug Berman, a professor at The Ohio State University who teaches a marijuana law class.
“They definitely helped the legislature understand that if they keep holding their nose at this issue, they’re all but inviting a less desirable actor to fill that regulatory space,” Berman said. “The reality is marijuana reform is a very complicated, challenging regulatory space – and probably the worst place to be fighting over the rules is in the state’s constitution.”
The campaign created attention and influence in other ways too.
“Then, they went out and collected $20 million to move this forward,” Berman said. “I’m sure some in the legislature said, ‘Wait, that’s a lot of money that could be used to leverage campaigns here.’”
After voters rejected Issue 3 last November, Gould said he immediately went to work.
Within a week, Ohio’s Speaker of the House Cliff Rosenburger (R-Clarksville) made a visit to Gould’s office.
“I reached out to him – I know – they had just bloodied us badly,” Gould said, referring to legislature-led amendment that banned monopolies from being written into Ohio’s constitution. “But it was clear the voters cared more about the process of how this got done, and it was also clear they wanted medical marijuana. I knew we had to convince the Republican leadership to support this.”
That meeting led to more over the next two months with Ohio’s top officials: Secretary of State John Husted; Rep. Kirk Shuring (R-Canton); Sen. Bill Coley (R-West Chester); and Sen. Kenny Yuko (D-Richmond Heights), Gould said.
“As we came together, we saw a merging of a lot of different interests -- a lot of different opinions -- but we all agreed to listen,” Gould said.
By January, Gould was asked to be among a 16-member Medical Marijuana Task Force , which included Republican and Democratic state representatives, physicians, law enforcement and business trade groups.
“I told them, I will sit on this task force and I was very clear to say that ‘Yes, I will be one of the people who wants to apply for a full cultivation license and build this industry in Ohio,'” Gould said. “Look, with our investment in ResponsibleOhio and in other states that were with (Green Light) -- I’ve forgotten more about this industry than most people will know. We’ve seen where states have gone wrong, what they’ve done right.”
Through May the task force studied the issue, listening to testimony from hundreds of medical marijuana patients advocates and other pro- and anti-marijuana groups.
“All the members -- we’re dedicated to trying to find common ground,” Schuring said. “But make no mistake, Jimmy Gould (was) a very important part of this work and came to this with a very pragmatic approach.”
Simultaneously, leaders in Ohio’s Senate took up the issue, too – hosting town halls across the state.
“ResponsibleOhio, one could say, definitely woke us up to the issue,” said David Burke, (R-Marysville). “We no sooner got passed the ResponsibleOhio vote, and all we kept hearing was – no – people still want medical marijuana.”
Meanwhile, Ohioans for Medical Marijuana marched forward with its own plan early this to take a constitutional amendment to voters this November.
“They were out there circulating petitions, and polling showed about 80 percent of people in Ohio supported medical marijuana,” said Sen. Bill Coley. “It became clear – this thing was going to pass in some form, and it was a question of whether we wanted a law written by our legislature or were we going to sit back and let something get written into our Constitution?”
As petition gathering ramped up, the group approached Gould, he said, looking for financial support.
“I told them no – I had made a promise to the task force not to fund any other effort as long as they were genuine in their approach,” he said.
To the extent that Gould or other members of his family and close business associates have made campaign contributions or promised of financial support to members of Ohio general assembly who helped usher the bill through, Gould offered this:
“I’m an independent voter – but I will always get behind a candidate that I think is moving the state in the right direction, and when I decide to support people who I think are doing what’s right for the state – that is my right,” he said. “I would love to see campaign finance reform, but that’s not the system we have, and if people don’t like the system, then change it.”
By May, Ohio’s Senate and House had passed their fast-tracked bi-partisan bill. In June, Gov. John Kasich signed the bill into law.
“What’s beautiful about this is that a whole bunch of people who think very differently were able to come together on this during a national election and get something done,” Gould said.
More rule making, business opportunities ahead
Where Ohio’s cannabis market may be headed next, well, that’s a story that Gould and his business partner, James, want to play a lead role in, too.
For now it’s unknown just how many business licenses the state may issue for those looking to grow, process, test and sell medical marijuana.
But Gould said he’s eager to be “one of the leading people” to apply for a cultivation license.
“We’re staying heavily engaged,” Gould said. “To me this is about building a very strongly regulated industry and one that makes good economic sense.”
Under Ohio’s new law three state agencies will be charged with writing the rest of the state’s rules governing the new program. They include:
- Ohio's Department of Commerce, which will be in charge of licenses and compliance of cultivators, processors and testing labs
- Ohio's Medical Board, which will certify physicians who recommend marijuana to patients
- Ohio's Pharmacy Board, which will oversee how patient registration and licensing of medical marijuana dispensaries. Under the law, epilepsy, cancer, chronic pain and Alzheimer’s Disease are among the list of more than 20 conditions that would qualify patients for medical marijuana use.
The agencies are charged with getting Ohio’s medical pot program up and running by September 2018.
The process can “make or break” investment opportunities, said Chris Walsh, editor of Denver-based Marijuana Business Daily.
“Ohio could be one of the largest markets in the country, but there are a lot of unknowns until the ruling-making process plays out,” he said.
As for Gould, he said he’ll be keeping close watch on the decisions ahead as he tinkers with business plans.
“We’ve just kept moving forward without any guarantee of anything,” he said. “If, for some reason, the rules don’t come together to support a well-regulated program and Ohio doesn’t get a good economic model, then I won’t invest.”