Illustration by Alix Ayoub

Weed Wars

Ian James entered his office in a rush, immediately issuing a string of profanity. The good-natured rant was aimed at the team of 20- and 30-somethings who have overtaken the aging manor on Broad Street that ResponsibleOhio calls home. The place was a hive of activity on a warm and beautiful morning in September. Staffers shuffled and sorted through piles of paper in a study off the main hallway near the entrance; a woman folded up a camera tripod from a recently completed interview for a college TV station; people revolved in and out of every room in the sprawling headquarters, everyone with a different trajectory but all of them headed toward the same goal—marijuana legalization.

James placed his coffee on a side table between two swiveling armchairs. It wasn’t even 10 a.m. and he was already running late. A countdown weighed heavy on his mind; 47 days until the election on November 3. Every minute counts. In Ohio, citizens and groups can place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot for a statewide vote in a general election by collecting a certain number of verified voter signatures via the petition process, and ResponsibleOhio’s Issue Three aims to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use. RO’s initiative will allow voters to decide the matter for the first time in state history.

“There’s probably a few dozen marijuana retail operations—they’re called drug dealers. They operate out of their cars, they stand on my corner out here, and sell dope.”

James is the organization’s executive director and the leader of the campaign pushing for the amendment to the state constitution. He’s a lightning rod, not shying away from his controversial proposal that has divided activists, instead engaging and fueling the fire with colorful language meant to provoke his rivals. He’s dismissive of critics’ concerns and shows naked disgust for his opponents in the government. He’s a pragmatic champion to some, an enemy within the ranks to others.

It seems appropriate that he serves as the embodiment of Issue Three, which has drawn detractors and uproar at every turn. It isn’t perfect; James will essentially admit as much. Many other people—both those for and against legalization—will assert that it isn’t a worthy proposal at all, very far from it in fact. But is it good enough to win? That’s the question.

The highlights of ResponsibleOhio’s proposal, for those who enjoy citizen-initiated constitutional amendment language: initially, it limits the growth, cultivation, and extraction of both commercial and medical marijuana to 10 locations specified in the amendment. Those sites will be controlled by RO’s 10 investor groups, which have raised well over $20 million combined to fund the campaign. Each of these locations—clustered around Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Toledo—will eventually hold a 300,000-square-foot indoor growing warehouse with climate-controlled, 5,000-square-foot grow rooms.

The second tier of the system consists of the manufacturing facilities, where edibles and other marijuana-based products will be created. These establishments will only be permitted to sell to retail stores and nonprofit medical dispensaries, which can only sell to patients with certification from a current treating physician. Retailers will only be allowed to sell to adults 21 and up, and they will only be able to sell marijuana and related products. The state will license a maximum of one retail store per 10,000 Ohio residents, which currently allows for about 1,150 locations.

The amendment also lays out plans for building testing facilities near colleges to certify product potency and safety, as well as to conduct research. It will be legal for residents over 21 to purchase, possess, use, and share up to 28 grams (one ounce) of marijuana or equivalent products, and residents can buy a license to cultivate up to four flowering plants and eight ounces of usable marijuana at home, so long as it’s grown in an enclosed, locked space and not sold.

Grow sites and manufacturing facilities will be taxed at a 15 percent flat rate, and retail stores will be taxed at 5 percent, in addition to any other applicable state and local business taxes. The flat marijuana taxes will go toward municipal and township funds (55 percent) and county funds (30 percent) on a per capita basis to pay for public safety, health, and infrastructure. The remaining 15 percent will fund the Marijuana Control Commission, a seven-member regulatory body appointed by the governor that will oversee statewide operations. In the fourth year after adoption, the commission will develop metrics to measure demand for recreational and medical marijuana, and it can issue one new cultivation license per year if it finds that either type of demand isn’t collectively met.

Retail stores must be approved for each specific location by voters in a local option election at a precinct level, similar to the system used for alcohol sales licensing. James estimated that there will be 25 to 40 stores operating statewide by the end of the first year and maybe 100 by the end of the second. A coalition of RO’s opponents called No on Three—which consists largely of healthcare organizations, law enforcement, educational institutions, and business associations—frequently points out that there will be more marijuana retail stores in the state than Starbucks or McDonald’s locations if the industry nears its limit.

As always, James has a response. “We are taking this right now from the shadows to the light, and I can tell ya, in close proximity here, there’s probably a few dozen marijuana retail operations—they’re called drug dealers,” he said, referring to unseen criminals somewhere near his headquarters in Franklin Park. “They operate out of their cars, they stand on my corner out here, and sell dope. And they sell more than just marijuana, mind you. And they sell to anybody who’s got cash; they do not check IDs.”

ResponsibleOhio began garnering headlines near the beginning of the year when the identities of some of the investors became public, including names like Oscar Robertson, Nick Lachey, fashion designer and Youngstown native Nanette Lepore, and Arizona Cardinals defensive end Frostee Rucker—who formerly played for both the Browns and Bengals. At least two investors call Columbus home—Rick Kirk, CEO of Hallmark Campus Communities, and Sir Alan Mooney, a financial advisor and minister.

Though the names of people involved raised some eyebrows, the idea that the amendment would promise the entire commercial marijuana growth and cultivation business to 10 limited groups immediately aroused ire, especially among longtime marijuana activists. This is not a typical legalization initiative, and Ian James doesn’t sound like a typical activist either. He has a saying, echoed at times by colleagues in separate interviews, about taking the movement from “tie-dye to suit and tie”—this represents the merging of a social cause and a business opportunity.

To attract interest in the plan from investors, RO circulated a 50-page document that carefully outlined the campaign strategy, the projected costs, and the potential windfall for contributors. In the foreword, James wrote: As detailed in this prospectus, we define success through what we provide contributors after the successful ballot initiative. To that end, we will deploy a seasoned legal and governmental affairs team to assist government officials in drafting the critical Enabling Legislation and to guide the actual implementation of the Marijuana Legalization Act.

The prospectus estimated the cost of the entire campaign to run about $20 million, of which James’s firm, The Strategy Network, was expected to bill about $5.6 million. The authors repeatedly promise to place investors in a prime position for a market that they claimed will exceed $1 billion.

Almost immediately after details of the plan became public, opponents began labeling the effort as an attempt to create a constitutionally protected monopoly.

On April 14, the Ohio Rights Group filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission alleging that four members of ResponsibleOhio, including Ian James, had previously infiltrated its campaign and used the information they learned to jumpstart their own effort. The Ohio Rights Group advocates for medical marijuana legalization,and it attempted to qualify a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment for the 2014 ballot.

According to James, he and his husband Stephen Letourneau began helping ORG in 2012. Together they run The Strategy Network, a political consulting firm in Columbus that specializes in ballot campaigns and helped win the 2009 casino initiative, and they volunteered to assist with signature-gathering, voter registration laws, and keeping track of petitions. James said that it became clear to him in 2013 that ORG didn’t have the organization or resources to be successful. He watched as other states across the country moved toward legalization and told Letourneau that they needed to put together their own effort. ORG’s initiative ultimately failed to qualify for the ballot, gathering only about 150,000 unverified signatures of that year’s 385,247 goal.

ResponsibleOhio denied all claims of wrongdoing and asserted that the Ohio Elections Commission had no standing to rule on the complaint since neither campaign had qualified for the ballot at that point. The commission members unanimously dismissed the claim at a hearing in May, agreeing that they lacked jurisdiction to make any ruling. That was only the beginning of the challenges and opposition.

“I believe that the scrutiny that we’re gonna go under, nobody’s ever gone under before,” said investor Sir Alan Mooney. “Every newspaper, every radio station, everybody looking up and at us from every way you can imagine.”

“If this were just a question over letting the electorate decide whether or not to legalize marijuana, I would not be in this fight. I’m in it because, in my view, these guys would prostitute the Ohio Constitution for their own economic advantage. and I think that should be an insult to every Ohioan.”

At the same time, the Constitutional Revision and Updating Committee was busy reviewing the citizen-initiative process as part of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, a governmental body that studies the constitution and makes amendment recommendations to the Ohio General Assembly. In a meeting on April 9, the committee began discussing reports of a constitutional amendment that grants “special privileges” to marijuana growers.

According to Rep. Mike Curtin, a Democrat from Marble Cliff who serves in the Modernization Commission, ResponsibleOhio’s progress toward the ballot earlier in the year accelerated the legislature’s timeline for developing a response to the issue of wealthy special interests influencing the constitution, which they had begun debating in 2013. By the end of June, he and Rep. Ryan Smith had received the legislature’s approval on a constitutional amendment that will be voted on by the public in November—Issue Two, which prohibits citizen-initiated amendments from granting a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel. Curtin and James—in a rare moment of harmony—agreed that if both amendments pass, whichever receives more affirmative votes will prevail and effectively nullify the other. Secretary of State Jon Husted has disagreed, saying that if they both pass, Issue Two will go into effect first, automatically killing RO’s Issue Three.

Curtin also said that if ResponsibleOhio had gone the route of an initiated statute, which only changes the Ohio Revised Code, he and many of his peers would not be involved.

“The legalization of marijuana is not my issue. If this were just a question over letting the electorate decide whether or not to legalize marijuana, I would not be in this fight,” Curtin said. “I’m in it because, in my view, these guys would prostitute the Ohio Constitution for their own economic advantage, and I think that should be an insult to every Ohioan.”

Curtain said that this trend of big money and special interests influencing ballot initiatives began in California and Oregon in the 1990s. According to “Political Profiteers Push Ohio’s Pot Vote,” an article co-published in June by Time and The Center for Public Integrity, at least $400 million was spent across the country in 2014 on hiring signature-gatherers, political consultants, and other industry experts for citizen-initiated ballot measures.

John Pardee, vice president of the Ohio Rights Group, claimed that although Issue Two appears to be a “heat-seeking missile to take down Issue Three,” he was also concerned about the language that prohibits amendments from granting a “special interest,” which could have a chilling effect on citizen’s initiatives. Curtin called that a bogus argument.

James said that RO decided to pursue a constitutional amendment rather than a statute because the legislature can’t be trusted to get it done—they’d done nothing since Rep. Bob Hagan first introduced marijuana reform in 1997. James blamed this inaction on gerrymandering, which he said is a far greater problem than the influence of money on ballot initiatives.

“These folks at the Statehouse have written themselves into districts that they’re terrified of their base,” he said. “So they’re scared shitless of ‘em and they’re not gonna change anything that’s gonna create an opportunity for a primary opponent to come in and kick their ass out of office. Now, that’s a threat to democracy.”

ResponsibleOhio’s early success and growing notoriety accelerated more than just the legislature’s plans. A Cleveland-based organization called Legalize Ohio 2016—formerly known as Ohioans to End Prohibition, which rebranded to help differentiate itself from ResponsibleOhio—also sped up its timeline in the wake of rumblings about RO. President Sri Kavuru and his friend Jacob Wagner founded the group in April 2014 and incorporated that September. They were about halfway done writing their proposed constitutional amendment when they realized they would need to announce their initiative about six months early to compete with RO.

Kavuru and the leaders of Legalize Ohio 2016 also pursued the constitutional amendment route for fear of the legislature’s ability to undo their work. Their amendment, targeted for next year’s ballot, has some significant differences from RO’s, though. First, it would allow any individual or corporation to apply for a license to grow and cultivate, and it includes the legalization of industrial hemp. Second, the grow limit is six plants and the possession limit is 100 grams (about three and a half ounces), the same cap Ohio currently sets for minor misdemeanors. Lastly, patients would be protected by a bill of rights, and they could possess up to 200 grams and grow 12 plants or form groups to grow collectively.

“A lot of [RO’s] advocates now are talking about putting together a patients’ bill of rights in order to lobby this commission if they win,” Kavuru said. “I find it sad and I find it funny that the bill of rights did not make it into the constitutional amendment for patients, which is where a bill of rights belongs.”

Kavuru said these issues are especially important because Ohio would go straight from prohibition to full legalization, and healthcare professionals are not as open and aware as they are in places that have already implemented medical marijuana. Some people have voiced concerns about the fact that RO’s Marijuana Control Commission wouldn’t be required to fund nonprofit medical dispensaries; others are worried that the 10 growers might produce insufficient quantities or varieties of medicinal marijuana, which are often low in the psychoactive THC compound, thus making them less profitable to cultivate and more vulnerable to growers’ margins.

“The true Achilles’ heel for Issue Three is the monopoly aspect. It’s greed run amok, and I don’t think people like it.”

Patients are the hinge on which the whole conversation turns. Among activists, they are the third rail—untouchable. The other arguments for legalization, whether philosophical, political, or moral, pale in comparison to the needs of the sick, suffering, and dying. Though opinions are mixed about the medical use of marijuana in the scientific and healthcare communities, these activists believe strongly in the ability of cannabis to treat many serious conditions.

When Jordan Lyles arrived in Colorado Springs from the Cleveland area two years ago, she was a 75-pound 18-year-old who had dealt with a catastrophic form of epilepsy known as Dravet syndrome since she was a toddler. Her mother Paula said that she was so skinny that she had a “tailbone like a dinosaur.” Paula brought her halfway across the country to join a nascent community of medical marijuana refugees who had lived in states where it was illegal. Most of them were seeking a low-THC strain called Charlotte’s Web, which has increased levels of a compound called cannabidiol.

In the two years since Jordan started taking medical marijuana, she has drastically cut her intake of pharmaceuticals, decreasing the number and dosage of conventional drugs that often come with dramatic side effects. Her mother reported that she’s happier and more alert now, she’s gained 19 pounds, and her seizures are greatly reduced—she recently went 12 days without suffering one, down from dozens a day.

Paula was suspicious of the moneyed approach of ResponsibleOhio because Jordan has had so much success in Colorado’s more open system. She questioned whether a full range of medicinal options will be available from Ohio dispensaries under this plan, pointing out that even the carrier product—the olive oil, butter, or coconut oil that are sometimes mixed with marijuana compounds like cannabidiol—can affect the extent of a patient’s success with the drug.

“If I was there I’d be cautiously optimistic because that’s all you really have on the table right now,” she said, “but after living out here and seeing what I’ve seen, I just know that this way’s better and I’d be crazy to leave.”

The activists all tout the intense desire to help people like Jordan. For ResponsibleOhio and some of its supporters, that means passing some kind of progressive legalization now. For others like Kavuru, that means assuring that whatever legislation is passed will have specific protections and assurances for patients.

Meanwhile, House Bill 33 would change the Ohio Revised Code to allow patients diagnosed with seizure disorders to use cannibidiol or other substances derived from it. It was introduced in February and has been referred to committee since then with no progress.

The deadline for providing the required number of voter signatures fell at the beginning of July, and as it approached, ResponsibleOhio’s main opponent shifted from the legislature to Secretary of State Jon Husted. In mid June, Husted issued a public warning to RO about errors in voter registration and “apparent fraudulent registration attempts.” Two weeks later, RO claimed it submitted 40,000 more signatures than the secretary of state’s office counted, and the group’s verified signatures fell short of the goal.

During a 10-day grace period, RO was able to gather and submit enough signatures to meet the requirement, officially assuring the amendment’s place on the ballot as Issue Three. But one day before the deadline, Husted’s office announced that it was naming a special investigator to review discrepancies and would subpoena Ian James and the group’s records to determine if there was reason to press charges of election fraud, a fifth-degree felony.

In the weeks after certifying the issue, Husted and the Ohio Ballot Board released the official language and titles that would appear on the ballot. Issue Three was described as follows: grants a monopoly for the commercial production and sale of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, and Issue Two was labeled as the anti-monopoly amendment. James and RO were outraged—they have contended since the beginning that their structure isn’t a monopoly because the 10 groups will be in competition once the amendment passes, and the state can add licenses if demand isn’t met. RO sued the ballot board in the Supreme Court of Ohio in order to change the wording of the title, as well as other language in the ballot that the organization felt was misleading.

At the beginning of September, an unnamed third party filed a federal lawsuit against Husted, claiming that the subpoenas issued by the secretary of state had a chilling effect on First Amendment rights of speech and affiliation. RO joined the suit. Husted dropped the original subpoenas the next week only to reissue a new round the day after. According to an article published the following week in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Husted alleged that investigators had heard from ResponsibleOhio workers that the organization’s leadership had knowingly engaged in gathering fraudulent signatures.

“They don’t have the solutions.They have a mentality of, ‘We want perfection.’ Well, you know, God, don’t we all? It’s not real.”

In his office on Broad Street, James bristled at the notion. He said that The Strategy Network has extensive training, videos, and a four-inch-thick book of procedures so that all workers understand the law. He accused Husted of “Red-baiting” and running a “McCarthy-istic witch hunt.”

“He’s accusing a conspiracy to commit fraud; I’m actually suggesting that he’s actually working to take away people’s First Amendment rights,” James said. “So I’ll stack that allegation of conspiracy on a federal level against his bullshit claim of something that he can’t prove. I can actually prove what I’m saying.”

The day after Husted met with the Enquirer editorial board, the Supreme Court of Ohio issued a ruling ordering the ballot board to revise four sections of Issue Three’s language for omissions, inaccuracies, or misleading information, three of which were in RO’s favor. But the court also ruled that the ballot title was not inaccurate, incorrect, illegal, confusing, misleading, or argumentative, and Issue Three will go to the ballot listed as a monopoly, still pitted directly against Curtin’s Issue Two.

The November election is drawing closer, and the war of words and political tactics will likely continue and intensify until the day arrives. Husted’s investigation and the lawsuit against him were still pending as of publication. The principal concerns for many critics are still the exclusive growing and cultivation rights, the constitutional protection, and the influence of money on the process. Ian James maintained that the only way to pass marijuana reform and get the industry started quickly was to line up investors beforehand.

Sri Kavuru disagreed. “The idea that it has to be structured that way because that’s the only way to get money, because there’s only a limited amount of money out there, is just complete fiction, and it was the only way that that idea could have been sold.”

“I believe that the true Achilles’ heel for Issue Three is the monopoly aspect,” Curtin said. “It’s greed run amok, and I don’t think people like it.”

John Pardee of the Ohio Rights Group didn’t like it initially. He spoke out against it for months, before and after ORG issued the complaint against ResponsibleOhio to the elections commission in April. But he knows firsthand how difficult the initiative process is, and he has doubts about any of the other legalization organizations getting it done. His group’s campaign is no closer than it was a year ago. He wouldn’t have written an amendment like Issue Three, but his job is to advocate on behalf of patients and he doesn’t see other viable alternatives. Now he’s rallying people to get behind Issue Three and work within that system of legalization to make it better.

“That’s what the choice is here in Ohio—it’s either vote for Issue Three or get used to prohibition for years to come,” he said.

There are other legalization groups out there—Better for Ohio, ResponsibleOhioans for Cannabis (which is unrelated to ResponsibleOhio), and Kavuru’s Legalize Ohio 2016—and each has a different version of what legalization would look like. James said that although they all think they can do it better, they don’t understand the reality of what this process actually requires.

“They don’t have the solutions,” he said. “They have a mentality of, ‘We want perfection.’ Well, you know, God, don’t we all? It’s not real.”

Part of the quarrel with any initiative like this is the unknown—every detail can’t be addressed in the state constitution. What will be done to prevent grower consolidation or vertical integration? Can “a seasoned legal and governmental affairs team” acting on behalf of a group of investors really be expected to help establish a competitive business environment for those same investors? Will the Marijuana Control Commission provide adequate funding for nonprofit dispensaries and medical programs? Can a group driven by profit be trusted to grow the strains required by patients?

Doubt—that’s what both sides will try to manufacture in the final month. In a political fight this convoluted and feverish, the battle is always to win the unaffiliated, those purple Ohio bellwether voters. Can government officials and opponents of Issue Three create enough doubt in the minds of voters to persuade them that this amendment might actually doom the industry it claims to bring to life, or that it would threaten the foundational document of the state? Can ResponsibleOhio investors and supporters convince voters that this proposal, their method, is the only way of getting it done? Can they sow enough doubt to make everyone believe that nothing else is coming on the horizon, that otherwise that field will remain fallow?

Is it good enough?