by: David DeWitt Sep 23, 2015
Issue 3 pot measure divides Athens County as well as state
A statewide November ballot proposal to amend Ohio’s constitution to establish a legal marijuana industry has sharply divided supporters of legalization, including here in Athens County.
Issue 3 is the work of a group called ResponsibleOhio, and would legalize recreational and medical marijuana sales and use for adults 21 and over. The amendment would limit commercial growing to an initial 10 sites belonging to initiative backers, and individuals would be able to obtain licenses to grow up to four budding plants at home.
This week, ResponsibleOhio also announced a statutory initiative called the Fresh Start Act, which would go before state lawmakers next year. If voters pass Issue 3, the Fresh Start Act would allow those convicted of marijuana offenses made legal by Issue 3 to petition in court to eliminate their sentences and expunge or destroy their criminal records.
Also this week, ResponsibleOhio announced it has received the endorsement of the Ohio branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The Issue 3 campaign boasts endorsements from a variety of other advocates, including ProgressOhio and NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
But even NORML’s endorsement came with some caveats, and the Ohio chapter of NORML is deeply divided on the proposal. Meanwhile, the Ohio Farm Bureau opposes the measure, and the Athens-Meigs Farm Bureau branch also recently voted in opposition. Longtime local legalization advocate and lawyer Don Wirtshafter has lined up against Issue 3 as well.
The primary objection to the Issue 3 proposal is the argument that it would codify a marijuana production monopoly into the state constitution. To that end, the state Legislature has even introduced Issue 2 as an “anti-monopoly” amendment meant to supersede Issue 3.
ResponsibleOhio’s executive director, Ian James, who grew up in Athens and graduated from both Athens High School and Ohio University, called the monopoly allegation a misconception in an interview this week.
James said after the first four years more commercial growing licenses could become available beyond the initial 10, and that individuals have the opportunity to grow their own, meaning there is no monopoly on growth.
“Ultimately, Yes on 3 establishes the floor of official growers, and it does so by limiting the total number of licenses so the government can properly regulate this industry,” he said. “We start with 10, and if those 10 don’t meet the needs of the state or consumers, the state adds licensing until the demand is met. That’s not a monopoly; that’s industry.”
He called the “true monopoly” the current drug cartels in Ohio that don’t pay taxes, sell drugs to kids, and operate entirely unregulated.
James said that states such as Colorado that had unlimited commercial growing have had trouble keeping up with regulations, and the initial limit to 10 in Ohio is intended so the industry can be regulated effectively.
Regarding Fresh Start, James said that if the legislature declines to move forward with the statute proposal after Issue 3 passes, ResponsibleOhio will look to put that proposal before voters in November 2016.
James noted that more than 17,000 Ohioans are arrested every year on marijuana charges.
“It impacts people from loss of driver’s license and loss of student financial aid to prohibition of employment licensing for plumbers, realtors, even nail technicians and barbers, because they’re all licensed by the state,” he said. “Think about that. If you get popped with a joint in your pocket, you can lose those things.”
He also noted the socio-economic implications of Ohio’s current laws, calling supposed decriminalization in this state a “hoax” and noting that marijuana remains illegal.
“It greatly impacts people who are lower in socio-economic means,” James said. “And black Ohioans are arrested four times more often than white Ohioans, even though blacks and whites consume at the same levels. It’s stunning.”
The ACLU of Ohio, in its endorsement of Issue 3, said the organization has opposed criminalization of marijuana since the onset of the so-called war on drugs, and that the “extreme regulation of marijuana has led to nothing but misery and injustice.”
“By voting yes on Issue 3, Ohio voters have a unique opportunity to end an unjust and unworkable policy,” the ACLU statement said.
It noted that ballot initiatives are expensive and difficult to achieve in Ohio, with marijuana reform first introduced in the state 18 years ago and many efforts to get it on the ballot having failed.
“This may be our last chance for years to come,” the ACLU release said. “Issue 3 needs to pass on Election Day because its failure may well mean another 10 or 20 years of the same bad policies and excessive punishment, a justice system clogged by marijuana prosecutions, lives ruined by prison, and marijuana in the hands of illegal, unregulated and dangerous cartels.”
Passage of Issue 3, the ACLU said, would begin to move Ohio “toward a system that is supervised, safe, efficient, legal, and operating under regulatory oversight.”
WIRTSHAFTER IS AN Athens area lawyer who has worked for four decades toward marijuana legalization, including most recently on a committee for the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment for medicinal marijuana. He said he’s disappointed that so many Ohioans are “swallowing the Kool-Aid from backers of Issue 3.”
“I’m extremely upset by the move to lock these monopolies into our constitution in a way that will never be changed in our lifetime,” he said.
Wirtshafter questioned how the state constitution could be changed in the future to make it better, as some advocates have claimed, when the corporations backing it will have a financial incentive of hundreds of millions of dollars a year to prevent any further changes.
“They’re going to spend whatever it takes to keep anyone from knocking them out of their power hold,” he said. “I’m upset because people don’t understand that the backers of Issue 3 remain hidden. The real owners of this remain hidden behind straw men.”
He said that figureheads with stock in the 10 companies have been put forward, but alleged that out-of-state owners would remain anonymous.
“That’s why you have state officials so upset. You have out-of-state money, and there’s no way to filter whether it’s even criminal money, drug gang money. There’s no check on this,” he said.
Wirtshafter also objected to the home-growing provision in Issue 3, saying that Ohioans would have to pay $50 a year for the license to grow at home, and by obtaining such a license would be granting permission to the state to inspect their homes at any time.
“You’re only allowed (to possess) eight ounces, including the plants, and they don’t even say dry weight,” Wirtshafter said. “Eight ounces of wet plants isn’t very much at all. And the state has a responsibility to come in and make sure your plants don’t get too big, and if they do, all of the sudden, it’s a felony.”
Wirtshafter also has a problem with the language in Issue 3 that allows home growth, but if it is transferred outside the home it’s a crime.
“What’s going to happen is they’re going to pass ‘open-container laws’ for marijuana, like they did in Washington (state) two weeks ago,” he predicted. “So you can go to the store and buy marijuana but if you open the package before you get home, driving around with an open package of marijuana is a DUI. They’re going to do that in Ohio.”
The Athens-Meigs Farm Bureau board voted last week unanimously with 10 in support and two members absent to oppose Issue 3 and support the legislature’s “anti-monopoly” Issue 2.
Kim Harless, organization director for the Athens-Meigs bureau branch of the Ohio Farm Bureau, said Monday that the vote was based on concerns over the monopoly issue and the subtracting economic opportunity from local agricultural interests.
“Basically this would involve an amendment to the state constitution, and we don’t believe that is something that’s a good thing,” she said. “We’re not opposed to legal marijuana for medical and retail sales, but we’re against monopoly.”
She said a monopoly goes against farmers who support free markets for agriculture.
“We are against a monopoly of any type,” she said.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently ran an article about how marijuana has been a huge cash crop in poor Appalachian counties in Ohio such as Meigs and Athens since the 1960s, generating millions in profits. Experts said that this market could decline by 60 percent to 70 percent under legalization.
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