Ohio rejects historic marijuana legalization initiative

Medical marijuana growing at a facility in Denver. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Medical marijuana growing at a facility in Denver. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Citizens of Ohio overwhelmingly rejected Issue 3, a proposal that would have legalized marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use. The results are a textbook example of the messiness that ensues when business, interest groups and government all get together in the legislative process. Squirrely as Issue 3 and its corollary, Issue 2, were, the state still missed an opportunity to set a historic precedent.

Much of Ohioans’ apprehension on the measure came from its creation of 10 sites with the authority to grow and distribute marijuana on a mass scale, which critics felt created a monopoly. This led the legislature to introduce of Issue 2, which did pass and banned the creation of those monopolies. If both measures had passed, marijuana would have been decriminalized but it’s not entirely clear who would have been licensed to grow and distribute it.

Despite the creation of a limited number of licensed growers, Issue 3 did allow individuals 21 years or older to obtain a license and possess “up to eight ounces of homegrown marijuana and four flowering marijuana plants.” It’s truly unfortunate that the greed of a handful of business interests, who wanted the rights to mass-scale marijuana growing all to themselves, squashed an otherwise excellent piece of legislation.

Preliminary polling showed Ohioans in favor of legalization. Now, with Issue 2 passed and Issue 3 defeated, Ohio can have a second chance at passing marijuana reform without the monopoly caveat, at which point it will have a better chance of passing. In the meantime, the state of Ohio will continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on marijuana-related offenses for at least one more year, penalizing marijuana users for an offense that is marching inevitably toward decriminalization.

Worrying about who’s going to be licensed to do what is missing the largest point in the marijuana debate, which is that the stuff should never have been outlawed in the first place. From the outset, its criminalization was explicitly racist, targeting undesirables like Mexicans and jazz musicians. It continues to penalize blacks and Latinos disproportionately. Poor and minority communities are ravaged by the War on Drugs.

Shoppers at a marijuana dispensary in Denver select a strain that's just right for them.

Shoppers at a marijuana dispensary in Denver select a strain that’s just right for them.

All that makes sense, with criminalization’s racist history and marijuana’s medicinal benefits becoming common knowledge, is to legalize it completely, tax its sale and pardon anyone in trouble for it. Details about who sells what can be sorted out later. The important thing is to cease, in Ohio and throughout the nation, the costly, ineffective, and in some cases life-destroying process of fining and jailing citizens for indulging a private and relatively benign vice or taking advantage of any of marijuana’s multiple medicinal uses.

Support for this decriminalization comes from many sources. Presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation to end the federal prohibition of marijuana. The New England Conference of United Methodist Churches, which consists of more than 600 member churches, declared that ending the War on Drugs is the Christian thing to do. And around the nation, even members of law enforcement are on board with transforming the way they handle substance abusers.

Sanders’s bill may not get the support it needs to pass, but decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level is necessary. States with decriminalized marijuana have faced harassment from President Obama’s Justice Department, which as of June 2013 carried out 270 raids on growers complying with state law. So long as the federal prohibition on pot remains on the books, legal pot growers will remain vulnerable to the federal government.

Worse, even as the tide shifts inevitably toward legalization, opposition is growing fiercer. GOP presidential frontrunner Ben Carson would like to “intensify” the War on Drugs and thinks recreational legalization is a “terrible idea.” In politics, business and law enforcement, powerful and moneyed interests remain committed to fighting legalization, particularly those with a financial stake in its continued prohibition. Pharmaceutical companies, for instance, have their own drugs to sell, many of which are far deadlier than pot.

As vices go, marijuana is remarkably safe. Of course, inhaling any kind of smoke is unhealthy and questions remain about THC’s carcinogenic content. But vices are called vices for a reason and Americans ought to be entitled to enjoy themselves however they choose. And this is to say nothing of hemp’s multiple fibrous uses, marijuana’s still-untapped medical benefits, and the tax revenue ending prohibition brings in.

Criminalizing the growing and cultivation of marijuana should be way outside the purview of states. Businesses should keep their greed out of lawmaking, particularly when it involves an issue as important as marijuana decriminalization. Ohio’s lost opportunity is heartbreaking for the state’s recreational and medically dependent users. Future ballots need only focus on one thing: ending the drug’s prohibition.

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