Why Ohio's Marijuana Initiative Went Down in Flames

Bad timing and objections to crony capitalism helped defeat Issue 3.


According to the latest Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal. Surveys conducted in March and October found that most Ohioans agree. So why did Ohio voters overwhelmingly reject Issue 3, which would have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use, in last week's election? Two reasons spring to mind.

1. Ohio voters do not like crony capitalism.

The campaign against Issue 3, dubbed Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies, focused on 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. As I explained here last week, that aspect of the initiative caused consternation even among people who otherwise support marijuana legalization. Two leading drug policy reform groups, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), were conspicuously neutral on Issue 3. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) issued a decidedly ambivalent endorsement under the headline "Investor-Driven Legalization: A Bitter Pill to Swallow." The Republican Liberty Caucus of Ohio and the Libertarian Party of Ohio were opposed.

If your marijuana legalization initiative turns libertarians against marijuana legalization, you probably have done something wrong. As DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann noted before the election, "a constitutionally mandated oligopoly for an agricultural product…seems un-American" and "sticks in the craws of both liberals and conservatives." The ballot description highlighted this aspect of Issue 3, saying the initiative "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." 

Worse, Issue 3 appeared on the ballot right after Issue 2, a measure that was designed to block marijuana legalization by prohibiting the use of initiatives to insert economic privileges into the state constitution. Issue 2 was described as an "anti-monopoly amendment" that "protects the initiative process from being used for personal economic benefit." It received support from 52 percent of voters. A Kent State University survey commissioned by WKYC, the NBC station in Cleveland, found that Issue 2 was popular even among supporters of legalization.

The Atlantic's David Graham rightly highlights voters' "concerns about monopoly control" but wrongly conflates those concerns with opposition to "Big Marijuana," the favorite bogeyman of the anti-pot group Project SAM. While anti-corporate attitudes may help explain some progressives' opposition to Issue 3, conservatives and libertarians who oppose prohibition but nevertheless had qualms about the initiative were not troubled by the prospect that businesses would make a lot of money by producing and selling marijuana products. They were troubled by the prospect that the market would be rigged. Opposition to Issue 3's crony capitalism should not be confused with opposition to cannabis capitalism.

Ohio State law professor Douglas Berman sees a silver lining for antiprohibitionists in the successful campaign against Issue 3. "That reinforces my sense that actually it's very hard to defend prohibition on the merits, but it's much easier to attack any particular plan to get away from prohibition," Berman told Graham. "To me, the reform community has to be ecstatic to see that even in a purple state like Ohio, the advocacy against reform wasn't, 'Marijuana is this evil weed.' It was, 'Don't trust those monopolists to legalize weed.'"

2. Voters who participate in off-year elections are not very keen on legalization.

The Kent State survey, which was conducted in the first week of October with a sample of 500 registered voters, put support for Issue 3 at 56 percent. But the pollsters warned that the result could be misleading, since people who cast ballots in years when voters are not electing a president "tend to be older and more Republican than the eligible electorate." That's relevant to the fate of Issue 3 because Republicans and older voters tend to oppose legalization. In the Kent State survey, only 45 percent of Republicans, 46 percent of 61-to-70-year-olds, and 29 percent of respondents older than 70 favored Issue 3.

A Bowling Green State University (BGSU) poll conducted in mid-October reinforces the point that off-year elections are not favorable to marijuana legalization. Unlike the Kent State survey, the BGSU poll focused on "likely" voters, and it found less support for Issue 3: 44 percent, with 43 percent opposed and 13 percent undecided. In the end, Issue 3 got just 36 percent of the vote. 

Disappointments like that one convinced Rob Kampia, MPP's executive director, that legalizers should focus their efforts on presidential election years. His group is backing legalization measures in five states next year: Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. "When voters in Nevada or Massachusetts get to the ballot box one year from now, they are not going to be thinking about what happened in Ohio a year earlier," says Mason Tvert, MPP's communications director. "They are going to be thinking about the problems marijuana prohibition has caused their states for so many years and the benefits of replacing it with a more sensible system. These initiatives will also benefit from heightened voter turnout during a presidential election year. The more voters that turn out, the more support we tend to see for marijuana policy reform."

While that's exactly what you would expect a legalization activist to say, that does not mean it isn't true. Voters have endorsed legalization in four states and the District of Columbia so far, and given trends in public opinion—in particular, the association between prohibitionism and old age—there is no reason to think that will be the end of it.

Although his side won yesterday, Project SAM's Kevin Sabet is the one who seems to be whistling past the graveyard.  "We've proven that legalization, even by popular initiative, can be stopped," he says, "and we intend to build on this momentum." The fact that anti-pot activists are crowing about winning one out of six battles over legalization—a situation that would have seemed fanciful just a few years ago—tells you all you need to know about the future of marijuana prohibition in America.

This article originally appeared at

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  1. I’m going to guess it’s more number 2. Hopefully, I’m wrong.

    1. I found it to be both. A slight majority favors overall legalization and 88% favors medical. I think this could’ve passed had it not been for both the reasons above. The oligopoly was a huge factor I think.

  2. It was, indeed, both. I’m from Ohio and we only had a 30% voter turnout, I think. Off year elections NEVER bode well for voter initiatives, especially with the issue of cannabis legalization. The “monopoly” as the media called it here was a huge factor. Jon Husted, our State Attorney General, and the Republican State Legislature argued before the Ohio Supreme Court that “the word oligopoly, while accurate, would be far too confusing to most voters and unknown to others. The word monopoly is known almost universally and already has a negative connotation.” The court allowed the word “monopoly” to stay in the proposal. All this to say, Conservatives and pro legalization advocates came together like bootleggers and Baptists to stop a strangle hold on the weed. Free the weed. No restrictions.

  3. It failed because it was a worse initiative than the one that legalized pot in WA. Which was better off before hand. Medical pot and the black market were better than the regulatory fisting that came with legalization. Now the government has their regulatory talons firmly entrenched in pot for the foreseeable future.

  4. I don’t consider it a defeat for marijuana legalization at all, no matter how it’s spun by the major media. Several major pro-pot groups completely washed their hands of it; the state LP came out against it. It was just a bad idea, and the ballot board managed to frame it with the word “monopoly” literally in the title, which never helps.

    I think the appetite for legalization is still here in Ohio.

    1. I like to think of it as a tough choice, but still a victory against cronyism and government overreach.

  5. Has no one else heard that the vote was rigged? It went from 65/35 for to 65/35 against in 11 minutes!…..s-flipping

  6. Im making over $9k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do,


  7. OR… it could be that pot legalization is just not as popular as anyone would like to believe. On fashionable social issues like this, there’s always a difference between what people will tell a pollster and what they do when they’re actually in the voting booth. We saw this in countless gay marriage referendums.

    Fact is that pot could have been legal a long-ass time ago. The baby boomers embraced pot in their youth, and have basically controlled every major lever of power in this country since the late 1990s. But they grew out of it and mostly chose not to legalize it. There’s no reason to believe the current generation of young people won’t do the same as they get older.

    Decriminalization is one thing; but I seriously doubt that most people — even if they indulge every now and then themselves — want to see pot made completely legal and as accessible as cigarettes and alcohol. It just feels like a cultural setback.

    1. Baby boomers like pot, but they love big government far more. It will be good when their generation dies off.

      1. Nick Gillespie first. He’s the worst Boomer.

    2. OR… it could be a generational thing. What happened to the “segregation forever” crowd? They died off. Same with the “no rights for women” crowd. Soon society will look back on pot prohibition and gay-marriage bans in the same way we presently regard segregation and subjugating women.

      Cannabis does have its risks and rewards, but we’re reaching the general consensus that it’s less harmful than alcohol, even if it’s a minute difference. That’s reason alone to legalize it.

      1. Yeah that’s true too, but those are really fundamental moral issues. You can’t compare pot to segregation.

        I tend to look at it more like porn. Everyone watches porn, but nobody wants their daughter to be a porn star. No matter how socially acceptable porn becomes, actually BEING a porn star will always carry a stigma.

        Same with pot; almost everyone in the country at this point has SOME experience with it, and pretty much everyone knows its not really a big deal. But I think most people prefer it not to be sold in grocery stores. Is that illogical? Maybe. But it’s the only real reason why pot hasn’t been totally legalized already.

  8. Crony capitalism? Don’t you mean socialism?

    1. ‘Crony capitalism’ is a contradiction in terms. Just call it ‘cronyism’.

    2. Crony capitalism? Don’t you mean socialism?

      No. Socialism means that the means of production are owned by the state. Crony capitalism means that the means of production are owned privately but receive handouts from the government.

      “Crony capitalism” probably was intended to taint the term “capitalism”, but it’s actually not such a bad term. In particular, it actually makes the distinction between the kind of fake capitalism progressives like and real capitalism.

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