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IPFS News Link • Drug War

Business groups behind unusual proposal to create a legal marijuana monopoly in Ohio


Sri Kavuru is a consummate marijuana activist. He studied the political and economic consequences of the country's war on drugs at the University of Cincinnati and became convinced that if Ohio launched a medical marijuana program, it could reduce the national heroin epidemic that had ensnared several of his friends. For a while he worked for the ArcView Group, a major California-based marijuana investor network, and in the summer of 2014 he moved back to Ohio to launch Ohioans to End Prohibition, dedicated to legalizing cannabis in the state.

Kavuru, 32, could be getting his wish: This November, Ohioans will vote on a constitutional amendment to allow medical and recreational marijuana, which could make it the fifth state to allow adult use of the drug. But Kavuru strongly disagrees with the ballot measure and is fighting it.

"This proposed law is anything but legalization," he says. "That's the feeling of many activists around the state. We are not going to vote for it, and we are encouraging other people to not vote for it."

Ohio, which is among the 27 states that do not allow for medical marijuana, has become an unexpected hot spot in the national marijuana policy debate by placing a legalization initiative on its off-year election ballot. The specifics of that initiative, spearheaded by a organization called ResponsibleOhio, has given marijuana proponents pause: If passed as written, the amendment would limit cultivation and extraction of medical and recreational marijuana in Ohio to 10 land parcels in the state – parcels owned by 10 investment groups that have together funded ResponsibleOhio's $20 million campaign. In other words, those bankrolling marijuana legalization in Ohio would have exclusive rights to control the economic backbone of what's estimated to be a $1 billion-plus state industry.

These investment groups aren't composed of your typical marijuana advocates. Instead, those backing the amendment are business-savvy heavy hitters such as NBA legend Oscar Robertson, NFL star Frostee Rucker, sports agent James Gould; payday lending executives William "Cheney" Pruett and John Humphrey and former boy band member Nick Lachey.

The amendment has turned local legalization activists like Kavuru into temporary prohibitionists – and put national marijuana advocacy groups, which have been on a roll with victories at the polls across the country, in an awkward position. Should such organizations support cannabis legalization in any shape or fashion? Or are there certain cases in which even marijuana advocates should recommend keeping the drug illegal?

Captains Of The Cannabis Industry

ResponsibleOhio's executive director, Ian James, is no stranger to politics. By his own count, the Columbus-based liberal political strategist has been working in campaigns for more than 33 years and has overseen the collection of 3 ½ million signatures to place issues on Ohio's ballot since 2006. So when he decided in early 2014 that something had to be done to fast-track marijuana legalization efforts in the state, which according to a Quinnipiac poll then supported medical cannabis by an 87-to-11 margin, he was operating from experience.

"Since 1997, medical marijuana has been introduced every year in the general assembly," he says. "It would get one hearing, where it would die. We know that we have a lopsided legislature because of gerrymandering that cannot find its way forward on this issue. People are just sick and tired of inaction on this."