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 Forbes.com.