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.