Today Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected Issue 3, which would have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use. With 50 percent of precincts reporting, 65 percent of voters were saying no to legal pot.
Issue 3 would have made Ohio the fifth and most populous state to legalize marijuana, the first state east of the Great Plains to do so, and the first state to jump directly from complete prohibition to legalization for medical and recreational purposes. Legalization in Ohio, a bellwether in presidential elections, could have had a big impact on politicians' willingness to deviate from prohibitionist orthodoxy and voters' willingness to support next year's crop of marijuana initiatives in other states. By the same token, the defeat of Issue 3 could slow the crumbling of pot prohibition across the country.
Prior to the election, Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), worried that a loss in Ohio "might change the national narrative," making it seem like the legalization movement is losing momentum. "That failure will be the only failure in the country," he said, "and then the media will feed on that: 'Oh, my God, legalization is backsliding.'" MPP, which was neutral on Issue 3, is backing legalization measures in five states next year: Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada.
Ohio's most prominent politicians, including Gov. John Kasich, Attorney General Mike DeWine, and Secretary of State Jon Husted, opposed Issue 3, and so did most of the state's editorial boards. But it's not clear whether the rejection of Issue 3 reflects general resistance to legalization or opposition to the initiative's most controversial feature: a cannabis cultivation cartel that would have limited commercial production to 10 sites controlled by the initiative's financial backers. The ballot description highlighted that aspect of the initiative, saying Issue 3 "grants a monopoly for the commercial production and sale of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes" and would "endow exclusive rights for commercial marijuana growth, cultivation, and extraction to self-designated landowners who own ten predetermined parcels of land."
Anti-pot legislators took advantage of objections to the crony capitalism embodied in Issue 3 by proposing Issue 2, which was designed to block Issue 3 by making it illegal to insert economic privileges into the state constitution. Issue 2 was supported by most voters—52 percent as of 10:15 p.m. Eastern time, with 69 percent of precincts reporting.
Light turnout also was a factor in the defeat of Issue 3. Various polls of registered voters found majority or plurality support for Issue 3, ranging from 44 percent to 56 percent. But support was especially strong among Democrats and younger voters, who are less inclined to vote in off-year elections than Republicans and older voters.
Mason Tvert, MPP's communications director, notes that "polls show a strong and growing majority of Americans"—58 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll—"think marijuana should be legal." He argues that the 2016 initiatives backed by his organization will "benefit from heightened voter turnout during a presidential election year."
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, says Ohioans were turned off by Issue 3's cultivation cartel. "The people of Ohio have understandably rejected a deeply flawed, monopolistic approach to marijuana reform that failed to garner broad support from advocates or industry leaders," he says. "This debate has shown that there is a strong base of support for legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana. Now the foundation has been laid for a potential 2016 effort that would put forward a more common-sense initiative and have a major impact on the presidential conversation in the process."
Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell has a similar take. "When it comes to the broader debate about legalizing marijuana, the defeat of Issue 3 won't be a case of 'as Ohio goes, so goes the nation,'" he says. "This was about a flawed measure and a campaign that didn't represent what voters want….Several polls leading up to Election Day showed that a clear majority of Ohioans support legalizing marijuana, but voters won't tolerate this issue being taken over by greedy special interests."
Update: With 76 percent of precincts reporting, Issue 3 is still getting just 35 percent of the vote.
Update II: With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Issue 3 has 36 percent, while Issue 2 has 52 percent.