Ohio's Weed War: Corporations, Activists Clash Over Legal Pot

Why are corporate raiders and old-school activists locked in a battle for the soul of the marijuana movement?

Old-guard marijuana activists have charged the group ResponsibleOhio with usurping the legalization movement for corporate profits, rather than for personal freedom or medical need. Credit: Conor Morris/Athens News

On November 3rd, voters in Ohio will decide the fate of legal weed — making the Buckeye State an unlikely ground zero in the national divide of the legalization movement. The fight pits the movement's ponytailed old guard against its rising carpetbaggers, a cadre of Rolex-wearing, politically connected businessmen intent on controlling the growth, sale and subsequent $100 million profits of legal weed. Unlike Ohio's longtime activists, the new weed elite has a $23.5 million war chest to campaign for dispensaries on every block. But while victory in heartland America would instantly notch the single greatest electoral achievement in marijuana reform, many see the movement's corporate takeover as the death knell of what has long been a grassroots reform campaign — destroying the last vestiges of the drug's counterculture relevance.

"New people come into the picture primarily motivated by money, not by a sense of injustice," says Troy Dayton, a decades-long activist and CEO of the Oakland-based ArcView Group, the country's largest marijuana-investor group. "And thus you have the problem. I've seen the movement fight over a wide range of things. But I've never seen something quite like what's happening in Ohio."

Without a doubt, the face of the corporate takeover of the marijuana movement is ResponsibleOhio, the statewide campaign that launched last November, the same month Oregon became the fourth state to legalize pot. ResponsibleOhio's ballot initiative, known as Issue 3, would legalize recreational marijuana by constitutional amendment. The initiative language creates a marijuana oversight board, allows for 1,100 retailers — more pot shops than the state has Starbucks — and permits each adult citizen four homegrown plants. Issue 3 creates just 10 marijuana farms and hands the keys to wealthy campaign donors, transforming a slew of real-estate executives, financiers and a curious bevy of celebrity investors — NBA legend Oscar Robertson, fashion mogul Nanette Lepore, former boy-band star Nick Lachey — into a monopoly of newfangled marijuana farmers, virtually overnight.

Traditionally in Ohio, legalization has been championed by the movement's activist class, a loose statewide network of protest politics with names like Ohio Rights Group (ORG) and Legalize Ohio 2016, with most outfits operating in the orbit of the country's three oldest drug-reform organizations: Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the National Organization for Reform of Mari-juana Laws (NORML). Many of Ohio's old-school legalization activists describe watching in horror as their cause succumbs to a big-business stampede. "We're for full legalization," says Bob Fitrakis, an Ohio Green Party leader and also an ORG board member. "But this isn't about that. This is about 10 people with a lot of money....essentially saying, 'Hi! We're going to use our money to create a new cartel.'"

For the past four decades, the non-profit status and equal-justice missions of MPP, DPA and NORML have colored the legalization movement's identity, but so, too, has political reality: It takes a few million dollars to win a pot campaign. Colorado's successful initiative cost around $3 million, and Oregon's around $5.5 million. In the past, such national money veered away from Ohio, an expensive and uncertain battleground state. When your movement dangles on a nonprofit budget, experts explain, you have to pick your states wisely.

ResponsibleOhio has emerged at the precise moment that legalization is grappling with this conundrum: How in the world to finance a movement that's rocketing at a speed that senior leaders privately confess is faster than they ever expected? Against this dilemma, ResponsibleOhio posed a radical answer: Forget the national leadership and fund yourself. The marijuana market, already an estimated $2.7 billion industry, long ago went private. But in Ohio, legalization experts say, the marijuana movement itself has gone private.

"In the Ohio case, this is very much a new phenomenon," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the DPA. "It's basically investors who are in it for the money. The political reality is that the role of groups that fight for this from a place of principle is just going to diminish very rapidly. And that's unfortunate."

There's a saying in American politics: "As goes Ohio, so goes the nation." Fittingly, Ohio's quest for legalization typifies America's 40-year journey to the present. Efforts to legalize in Ohio began in 1975, when the state joined a wave of nine others to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the plant within four years. But during the Eighties, the Reagan Revolution swept Ohio twice by double digits, and public opinion for legalization flatlined. Beginning in the late Nineties, an Ohio state legislator began introducing symbolic measures at legalization. Finally, in the late 2000s, Ohio activists began taking a cue from legalization's successful referendums, drafting ballot initiatives aimed at legalizing medical marijuana.

For much of the past year, no group has fought juggernaut ResponsibleOhio harder than ORG. In the gaggle of coalitions and alternative politics that make up Ohio's legalization traditionalists, ORG is perhaps first among equals. Its membership tilts boomer, not millennial, a homespun network of gray-haired, grassroots activists that since 2010 has been attempting to bring a statewide initiative to the ballot, one that would legalize medical marijuana.

Though they could hardly be more different, ORG helped birth ResponsibleOhio — and its members aren't sure they like what they see. This past May, months after the announcement of the legalization ballot initiative, ORG activists brought a complaint to the Ohio Elections Commission, alleging their campaign had been infiltrated. (The complaint was unanimously dismissed.) In 2013, ORG was preparing for a ballot campaign for medical marijuana and had begun recruiting a few consultants and pollsters — Ian James volunteering among them, offering the help of his consulting firm, Columbus-based the Strategy Network. But in the months that followed, James began to have other ideas. ORG alleges that with the collusion of others in the group, James started quietly shopping the idea of a rival campaign to a chosen few members. In June of last year, and with little warning, James began working for ResponsibleOhio. Legalization had a new heir apparent, and James, with his cavalcade of political connections, was sitting atop the movement.

In the wake of these power moves, James has quickly become the most controversial name in legalization. "There are people who complain because folks are going to become millionaires when this passes," James tells me about his critics, doing a whiny rendition of his adversaries: "I don't like this corporate approach." At 49, James has a tendency to talk like the embattled political pro he is. "For the people who say they can wait" — for a more activist-friendly initiative next year — "they need to get a fucking grip."

James admits that he bears no previous ties to the world of drug reform; a 30-year veteran of Ohio politics, he bills himself as a professional among amateurs. But his campaign has struggled to shed its negative public image — a bandit team of blue bloods who can hardly believe how rich they're about to get. James' firm will collect at least $5.5 million in contracts during the campaign. The 23 owners are expected to rein in up to $100 million in profits, according to one estimate. And their 10 LLCs, the entities that would own each farm, were registered with the secretary of state under numeric identifiers starting with 7682677 — or, on a dial pad, "POTBOSS."

"I've been involved in this for 40 years," says Don Wirtshafter, 63, an ORG member with a white beard and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts (think Santa Claus on holiday in Tijuana). "But this new rush toward greed, it's rolling over all the good work we did. ResponsibleOhio, they sabotaged our campaign, they blackened our name. And now off they go like heroes into their financial scam."

James dismisses the accusations with a snort and says that anyone who is for legalization but not backing Issue 3 is "fucking crazy. Do you or do you not want to end prohibition?" he continues. "And anybody who says no — they need to have their fucking heads examined."

Galvanized by the threat of a hostile takeover, legalization groups began plotting this past summer how to oppose ResponsibleOhio. "A lot of activists, they're overwhelmingly against it as bad public policy," says Sri Kavuru, president of Legalize Ohio 2016. "A lot of people would rather get a ticket than vote for a monopoly."

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In August, Ohio's legalization saga took another frenzied turn, when law-and-order types in the state created a rival ballot question, directly juxtaposed with RO's Issue 3. Indeed, called Issue 2, the ballot language is worded simply to prohibit the passage of Issue 3 — "a desperate attempt to derail RO," says ORG's Fitrakis. Legalizers and drug warriors alike — just-say-no prohibitionists like pediatrician groups and law enforcement — found themselves allied, wedded by little else but mutual hatred of ResponsibleOhio. Aaron Weaver, president of the pro-legalization Citizens Against ResponsibleOhio, says, "Basically, this group is made up of people that I absolutely despise." Elise Spriggs, the head of the state's Drug Free Action Alliance, agrees: "Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows."

"It's a bootleggers and Baptist coalition," explains Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at NYU and a leading expert on drug policy. Some leaders, disturbed by the battle in Ohio, agree. "I didn't do this to make a bunch of rich white guys richer," says one leader of a prominent state's legalization campaign. "That's where this is all going. I didn't sign up for this."

ResponsibleOhio headquarters operates from Ian James' 13,000-square-foot Edwardian mansion, a 1904 structure that towers upward from a leafy avenue in the heart of Columbus. A few miles away, ORG occupies a free-standing carriage house, peering at a Chips-N'-Go gas station and a local Wendy's. "People want to put something on the ballot with no money," says James. "Well, money is the mother's milk of politics and campaigns....That's the way it is."

James' breakthrough entails more than hefty coffers: Virtually everyone in the campaign's brain trust draws from a network of Ohio power politics. Among ResponsibleOhio's army of consultants are a former messaging strategist for Hillary Clinton and Michael Bloomberg; John Kerry's campaign lawyer during the Ohio imbroglio of the 2004 election; Rand Paul's ad guru; and a senior adviser to Sen. Sherrod Brown. "There's this moment where people realize that there is money and [political] profit in pot, and it's not a surprise that those two things are happening concurrently," says Danny Franklin, a partner with the Benenson Strategy Group, a messaging firm that advised Obama's presidential campaigns, and who works with drug-reform leaders to research mass incarceration. "How the activists respond is going to be interesting. When money is involved, money has a way of winning."

Whatever the outcome of the Ohio ballot, the era of grassroots legalization is ending, numerous activists say, while the era of corporate campaigns has arrived. To that end, longtime observers say that if victorious, ResponsibleOhio will change the way legalization campaigns are run — and what they're running for.

"There's a kind of 'small is beautiful' model that many activists would prefer — a microbrew or vineyard model," Nadelmann says. "The people with the largest amount of money as investors prefer restricting the market to a small number of players. For them, big is beautiful."

But the legalization faithful are not going quietly. Splinter groups have begun to proliferate across the country, vowing to run protest initiatives for the "small is beautiful" approach. In both conviction and comportment, they look strikingly similar to ORG. This month, four such splinter groups — in Arizona, Maine, California and Massachusetts — announced a fundraising alliance. "It's the same scenario nationally as it is in Ohio — it's big money," says Jason Medar, director of the group Arizonans for Mindful Regulation. "And it's the same theme everywhere you seem to go: Big Marijuana versus marijuana consumers."

One day this summer, legalization advocate Steve Fox lumbered across the gold-leaf and gilded lobby of Washington's Mayflower Hotel, where he'd wrapped yet another meeting with a client eager to break ground in the medical-marijuana industry. An activist who was present for nearly every legalization breakthrough in the last decade, Fox was a core architect of Colorado's amendment; he co-founded the first marijuana trade group, the National Cannabis Industry Association, and now serves as a lawyer with Vicente Sederberg, the country's first powerhouse marijuana law firm. Fox says he's preparing to say goodbye to a previous era of activist reform that he helped build, part of a growing legion of influential marijuana reformers who envision a post-2016 landscape in which legalization is propelled even more by industry, not less. Part of the calculus, Fox says, is political realism. "It's becoming hard to convince the kind of people that have given to MPP in the past to now give a ton of money that's going to help other people make a ton of profits," he says.

Across various strata of legalization politics, more players are siding with Fox, but some go a step further. A number of leaders insist that participants in the emerging industry have a moral obligation to contribute to the nonprofit establishment that spent decades fighting for reform, and should fund their campaigns.

"The people making money in the industry, most of them don't even want to contribute to the cause," complains Nadelmann, who cited statistics that federal marijuana arrests are up from last year. "The war on weed in the South and other states, where marijuana arrests are as high as ever — I'm having a hell of a time raising funding working on that issue."

So far, Nadelmann is asking the industry politely — traipsing through pot-business conferences to explain racial disparities in marijuana arrests to "sensitize" his audience, he says. Yet it's unclear how much deference — if any — the nouveau riche of private marijuana will pay to the old guard.

Last month, ResponsibleOhio hinted at an answer when the campaign made a miscalculation grave enough to possibly cost it the election. It unveiled the new campaign mascot: Buddie, a grinning, anthropomorphic marijuana superhero. With a large, oblique green head — sporting what appears to be a muscle-tee and a doctor's coat — Buddie instantly became a lightning rod. Anti-drug warriors took to the news of Buddie with alarm — proof, many said, of corporate marijuana's intent to sell to children. 

For legalizers who had kept their misgivings quiet, Buddie pushed many over the edge. "It's really irresponsible what they're doing. At worst, they're appealing to children. At best, they're opening our movement to attacks of appealing to children," says Tom Angell, director of the national persuasion campaign Marijuana Majority, who was driven to oppose ResponsibleOhio by L'affaire Buddie. "It's them not being privy to the lessons that many of us who worked on this for years have learned in past campaigns."

Beset on all sides, James again shrugs off criticism of Buddie. "Campaigns are not won based on national endorsements of marijuana advocates," he says. "The national groups that have some angst about this — well, fuck, people! You weren't involved in the first place. You're the ones who took a pass on Ohio because it was too expensive or it was too heavy a lift." James insists that Buddie was a successful ploy to drive out millennial voters. In his defense, campaign analysts say James will need every vote he can get: A recent poll pegs support for legalization in Ohio at 53 percent, with opposition at 44 percent, a close margin for a ballot initiative.

The closeness of the race presents the national legalization leadership with an opportunity: a final bargaining chip, and a powerful one, to call off the pitchforks with a national endorsement. But despite their chance to land a major swing state, legalization groups, for the most part, have balked at making an endorsement decision or outright refused. "DPA is not endorsing the Ohio initiative because of our reservations about the oligopoly provision," says Nadelmann. "But if it passes, it will significantly advance the national movement to end marijuana prohibition. Meanwhile, if it loses, I don't think that will be much of a setback, given that it's an off-year election."

Meanwhile, NORML has issued a tepid endorsement — emphasizing its disgust with the monopoly. "It was a spirited debate," said a senior NORML member present for the vote. "This was a qualified endorsement, not an enthusiastic one." All eyes, then, seemed to fall on MPP. "I think you could make very compelling arguments on all sides of this if you want," says MPP's Mason Tvert. This Orwellian nonendorsement has left some members confused. "They want the perception to be that this movement is growing and there are no bumps in the road," says one leader of a legalization campaign. "They don't want to admit that there are tensions."

But in mid-October, back in Columbus, ORG came to a different realization. As a medical-marijuana organization whose primary concern is patients, ORG saw little choice but to endorse Issue 3 and ResponsibleOhio, says Savannah Smith, the group's young new executive director. In what she described as a "hotly contested" vote, the board elected to campaign in support of Issue 3 — some as unenthusiastically as conscience allows. "I'm so conflicted to my core about it," says Smith, who stressed that ultimately ORG's decision was about "bringing relief and treatment to medical patients." But with ORG's 180-degree turn on ResponsibleOhio and its splashing its endorsement on its website, it's hard not to wonder if the long-postponed wedding of marijuana's past and future had finally arrived in the form of a shotgun marriage.

"A byproduct of all the drug policy reformers' efforts of the past 20 years may be the emergence of this legal industry," says Nadelmann, "and it will probably be that marijuana prohibition ends as a result of the financial interests of the people in the industry." He pauses and then adds, "And it's not going to be pretty."

On this point, James, for the first time, sounded in agreement with the leaders of a movement he's come to terrify and eventually co-opt. "It's a new age, one where private organizations and private actors who are working with advocates try to end prohibition," he says, preparing to join Buddie at another college campus on the tour. "We are heralding a new era."