Saturday, August 22, 2015

Should Ohio Legalize Marijuana?

Dear George,
The big political issue in Ohio this season is whether or not to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in the state.  A group called ResponsibleOhio gathered over 310,000 registered voter signatures, initiating a General Election vote on Nov. 3 for or against a Constitutional Amendment to legalize marijuana in Ohio.  I hadn’t worried much about the issue, but recently I decided it’s time to catch up. 

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S., and, following alcohol and tobacco, it’s the third most popular recreational drug.  Close to half of the U.S. population in the 12-64 age range have tried marijuana, an estimated 12% have used it in the last twelve months, and 7% have used it in the last 30 days.  (22) [Note: numbers in parentheses refer to sources at end.]  Most marijuana users began as teenagers, and every day over 3200 teens use marijuana for the first time. (7)

Whether legal or illegal, marijuana is big business worldwide.   Mexican drug cartels take in $25 to $30 billion a year, much of it in marijuana sales. (22)   In addition to imports from Mexico and elsewhere, marijuana is believed to be one of the larger agricultural cash crops in the U.S.  In 2010 law enforcement officials estimated that the annual black market value of marijuana sold in the U.S. was $41 billion. (10)

Most people smoke or ingest marijuana because of enjoyable mental and physical effects.  It makes them happy, more relaxed, more sociable and uninhibited.  Users typically experience a distorted sense of time, random thought patterns, and short-term forgetfulness.  In some cases they may also experience anxiety, depression, paranoia, or even psychotic experiences.  All of these various effects are usually short-term, reaching their peak in 10 to 30 minutes, and lasting up to two or three hours.  (7, 21)  Researchers generally conclude that long-term effects  of heavy use by teenagers include reduced thinking ability, memory loss, and decline in learning capacities.  It is believed that heavy users lose an average of 8 IQ points between the ages of 13 and 38, though those who began as adults do not show such declines.  About 1 in 11 users become addicted.  Compared to non-users, heavy marijuana users show lower life satisfaction, worse mental and physical health, decreased sex drive, more relationship problems, lower high school and college graduation rates, lower income, and higher unemployment.  (7).  On the other hand, most experts agree that the negative health and social consequences of marijuana are less harmful than those associated with alcohol and tobacco, both legal drugs in our society (13)  While it’s sometimes argued that marijuana leads people to try harder drugs in search of a stronger high, this is not true for the substantial majority of marijuana users.  Most drug use begins with alcohol and nicotine rather than marijuana.  (16)  

Common arguments against the legalization of marijuana include the following:

·       Marijuana use is dangerous in terms of harmful cognitive consequences, health-care costs, parental neglect of children, and other third-party costs.
·       The easy availability of marijuana would create new consumers. 
·       Marijuana can be addictive. 
·       Legalization means more driving under the influence of marijuana. 
·       Employees testing positive for marijuana have more industrial accidents, incur more injuries, and have higher absenteeism rates. 
·       Use of marijuana can lead to the subsequent use of hard drugs.
·       Legalizing marijuana sends a message to young people that drug use is acceptable. 
·       Legalization offers no guarantee that the underground market will diminish. 
·       The majority of marijuana users are in their teens and twenties, and it’s very unlikely that legalization will stop youth under 21 from using marijuana. 
·       The state should not be involved in the distribution of drugs considered immoral by a substantial portion of the population. (11, 19) 
Attitudes about legalization of marijuana have shifted dramatically in recent years.  A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 52% of respondents favored the legal use of marijuana (up from 32% in 2006), while 44% said they were opposed.  (4)  Attitudes vary sharply by age.  Gallup found in 2013 that 67% of 18-29 year olds supported legalization, while only 45% of those 65 or older did so.  (9)  To date,19 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and 23 states have legalized it for medical purposes.  Ohio removed jail penalties for possession of up to 3.5 ounces in 1976, and the misdemeanor penalty today is a $150 fine. (15)

Proponents of marijuana legalization offer numerous arguments, including the following:

·       Despite huge expenditures of money and effort, prohibition of marijuana has failed, particularly in terms of restricting youth access.
·       Marijuana is less harmful than a number of widely used drugs (e.g., tobacco, alcohol) which enjoy legal standing in the society.  
·       Marijuana production, quality control, and distribution will come under the rule of law with legalization.
·       Legalization will create jobs and opportunities in the formal economy rather than in the criminal black market.
·       State and local governments will receive major new sources of tax revenues to support critical public services.
·       Illicit marijuana trade is associated with violence in the community.
·       With legalization, the black market would be largely eliminated; law enforcement resources could be redirected to crimes that actually threaten the community; and prison and court costs would be markedly reduced. 
·       Though whites and African-Americans have very similar rates of selling and using marijuana, African-Americans are far more likely to be arrested, charged, and convicted for marijuana offenses. 
·       Criminalization is a violation of civil liberties.  People should have the legal right and personal freedom to ingest into their own bodies what they choose.  (7, 14)

If it receives a majority of votes, the ResponsibleOhio plan would give rise to a Constitutional Amendment that would legalize medical and recreational marijuana use by Ohio residents 21 and older.  Commercial production of marijuana in Ohio would be restricted to 10 privately-owned farms, the specific land-sites for which are specified in the amendment.  Approximately 20 private investors have been recruited as owners of the 10 farms, and they are currently contributing $2 million per farm for campaign funds, as well as arranging to spend $20 million to buy the land and $300 million to build facilities.  This does not exclude individual residents from growing their own marijuana.  Adult Ohio residents who pay a $50 license fee can grow up to 4 flowering plants per household and possess eight ounces of marijuana.  They cannot sell marijuana to others, though they can share.  Like alcohol, marijuana can be consumed at home and in other private places, but not in vehicles, schools, day care centers, jails, etc.  The governor would appoint a 7-member Marijuana Control Commission to regulate homegrown and commercial marijuana production, sales, taxation, and research.  The Commission would grant licenses to selected members of the public to open retail establishments after those applicants pay a $10,000 fee.  The amendment allows for one store for every 10,000 residents — a statewide potential maximum of 1,159 stores.  Marijuana for personal use would be taxed 5% at the retail level and 15% at the wholesale and manufacturing levels.  Tax proceeds would be distributed to municipal and township governments (55%), county governments (30%), and to the Marijuana Control Commission (15%).  A task force estimated that by 2020 the 10 privately-owned farms would be doing $1.1 billion in sales, testing and production facilities would make over $725 million, and retail stores would take in $2.2 billion.   ResponsibleOhio planners estimate that tax revenues for local communities would reach $500 million by 2020.  (1, 3, 5, 6, 18, 23) 

The ResponsibleOhio proposal was developed by a small group of lawyers and business entrepreneurs, spearheaded by Columbus-based political consultant, Ian James, who was also instrumental in persuading Ohio voters to approve four privately-owned gambling casinos in the state several years ago.  James has stated: “By reforming marijuana laws in November, we’ll provide compassionate care to sick Ohioans, bring money back to our local communities and establish a new industry with limitless economic development opportunities.” (4)  The investors recruited by James and his group who will receive all profits from the ten farms include a former NBA superstar, an ex-Cincinnati Bengal, a former boy-band member, a fashion designer, a WEBN radio host, a Dayton pain specialist, a Cincinnati philanthropist, two great grandsons of President William Howard Taft, and several other Ohio and non-Ohio businessmen, financiers, and investors.  (6, 18)

ResponsibleOhio is expected to spend as much as $20 million in its pre-election campaign, including TV and radio advertising, direct mail, social media, voter registration, local canvassing, and an all-county bus tour.  There is little organized opposition to date, although many groups and prominent individuals have objected to the plan.  These include high-level /Republican officials in Ohio state government (the Governor, Attorney General, State Auditor, and State Treasurer), the Republican-dominated Ohio state legislature (which added its own proposed Constitutional Amendment to the ballot in an effort to block marijuana legalization), the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, the Ohio State Medical Association, state sheriff and prosecuting attorney associations, the Libertarian and Green parties of Ohio, and several grass-roots pro-legalization groups.  (1, 2)   

The most frequent criticism of ResponsibleOhio’s proposal is the decision to limit growing sites to 10 facilities which are owned and operated by financial backers of the campaign.  This is seen as creating a monopoly (or, more accurately, an oligopoly) dominated by a small number of wealthy sellers who will enjoy huge profits while eliminating all commercial growing opportunities for the community at large.  Although the Libertarian Party of Ohio favors legalization of marijuana, it opposes the ResponsibleOhio amendment.  Its political director states: “This isn’t a proposal to restore rights to Ohioans.  It’s a crony scheme to line the pockets of a few wealthy investors.” (12)  The president of another pro-legalization group has argued, “…it seems like it was conceived in a smoky backroom by a bunch of consultants who said, ‘Let’s go out and get some investors and we’ll all make money.’” (6)  In reply, Ian James, ResponsibleOhio’s director, has said, “The honest and most easy response is: I am going to profit from this.  If people are upset about me making money, I don’t know what to say other than that that’s part of the American process.  To win and make this kind of change for social justice, it does cost a lot of money.” (18)  ResponsibleOhio argues that the ten farms are separate from each other and will compete with one another, the opposite of a monopoly; that restricting the number of farms makes monitoring easier and increases motivation to cooperate with regulators; that over 1100 business licenses for manufacturing, dispensary, and retail sales will be open to the public, creating widespread economic opportunities; and that legalization will bring hundreds of millions of dollars of new tax revenues to local communities.  (1) (23)

Ohio’s ballet issue isn’t a simple decision.  Persuasive arguments can be made on either side, and reasonable people can disagree.  I find myself torn when I think about how to vote.  On the one hand, my primitive puritanical self, which dates back to childhood in a stern Lutheran family, says that a Yes vote amounts to institutionalizing “sin”.  On the other hand, my college-age, more free-thinking self thinks that legalizing marijuana is a long overdue, sound idea.   I don’t much like the notion of a few already rich people using a constitutional amendment to make hundreds of million dollars in profits for themselves.  Ohio’s liquor stores are state owned and state run, and that could be extended to marijuana sales and production, with all of the net proceeds going to public benefit.  Many pro-legalization pot activists in Ohio advocate voting against Issue 3, arguing that more sensible and fair proposals will be forthcoming in the future.  Other pro-pot people argue that, despite the imperfections in the ResponsibleOhio plan, investors will always get rich as a result of marijuana legalization, and this is the only available option that Ohioans are likely to see in the foreseeable future.  All in all, my current inclination is to vote no.  We’ve lived our entire lives without a marijuana store down the block, and I suppose we can wait a while longer.

(1), “Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative (2015)”; 
(2), “Who’s for, against ResponsibleOhio plan to legalize pot?” (Aug. 17, 2015); 
(3), “What you need to know about marijuana initiative” (July 24, 2015); 
(4), “Is Ohio about to legalize recreational marijuana?”  (Aug. 13, 2015); 
(5), “Will Ohio become the fifth state to legalize marijuana?” (Aug. 14, 2015);
(6), “Backers of marijuana issue in Ohio are organized, well-funded” (June 25, 2015); 
(7), “Cannabis”, “Marijuana”, “DrugFacts: Marijuana”, “Marijuana use and education outcomes”, “Trends and statistics”;  
(7a), “Marijuana Legalization and Regulation”; 
(8), “Economists Predict Marijuana Legalization Will Produce Public-Health Benefits” (Nov. 1, 2013); 
(9), “For First Time, Americans Favor Legalizing Marijuana” (Oct. 22, 2013); 
(10), “Marijuana Facts”; 
(11), “Arguments for and against the legalization of marijuana”; 
(12), “LPO Opposes Responsible Ohi Cannabis Initiative” (May 2, 2015);
(13), “No High Risk: Marijuana May be Less Harmful Than Alcohol, Tobacco” (Feb. 26, 2015); 
(14), “Marijuana Economics” (April 14, 2015)”;
(15), “Ohio Laws & Penalties”;   
(16), “Marijuana: The Gateway Drug Myth” (Aug. 26, 2014); 
(17), “’ResponsibleOhio’ Collects 550,000 Signatures in Marijuana Legalization Drive” (June 10, 2015);
(18), “Political profiteers push Ohio’s pot vote”;
(19), “There are smarter ways to deal with marijuana than legalization”; 
(20), “Where Americans smoke marijuana the most” (Aug. 5, 2014); 
(21), “How Does Marijuana Affect You?”; 
(22), “Cannabis (drug)”, “Illegal drug trade”;  
(23), “About”

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