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Marijuana Legalization Group Has Faced Challenges from Left and Right

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Marijuana Legalization Group Has Faced Challenges from Left and Right
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It’s been a difficult road for ResponsibleOhio, the organization hoping to legalize marijuana across the state by way of an amendment allowing 10 marijuana growing sites in Butler, Clermont, Franklin, Hamilton, Licking, Lorain, Lucas, Delaware, Stark and Summit counties. The amendment would establish a commission to regulate Ohio’s marijuana industry, as well as legalize personal growing and use of marijuana by anyone older than 21.

The initiative faced some early opposition from Attorney General Mike DeWine, who refused to certify the summary of ResponsibleOhio’s proposed amendment in February because of inconsistencies between the summary and the actual amendment. By the time of DeWine’s letter rejecting the summary certification, ResponsibleOhio was already preparing an updated summary of their amendment, ultimately winning DeWine’s certification.

The organization then began the process of getting at least 305,591 signatures (10 perecent of the total votes in Ohio’s 2014 gubernatorial election) in order for their amendment to appear on the ballot. It was in this process where the group ran into trouble with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office.

In June, Jon Husted issued an advisory to election officials in all 88 counties to closely scrutinize voter registrations submitted by The Strategy Network, which was coordinating ResponsibleOhio’s signature and registration drives. A statement from Husted’s office said boards of elections had been reporting “apparent fraudulent registration attempts from the group’s submissions.”

Among the irregularities reported to Husted included false or illegible signatures, registrations from underage and therefor ineligible individuals, registrants reporting addresses that did not exist, and other oddities. In his statement on the advisory, Husted said, “ResponsibleOhio’s suspicious voter registration efforts seem to be simply another step in a growing trend of irresponsible behavior.”

“Disregard for Ohio’s laws and Ohio’s citizens will not be tolerated,” added the Secretary. “Sloppiness and fraud are unwelcome in our state’s elections system.”

In response to Husted’s advisory, Ian James, the Executive Director for ResponsibleOhio, said the group was surprised and disappointed to hear the Secretary’s allegations, saying Husted’s office never brought up any concerns about the registration process in early meetings.

“In placing this issue before the voters, we’ve registered tens of thousands of new voters who will now be able to participate in our direct democracy,” said James in a statement. “We have fully complied with Ohio election laws, and we have gone above and beyond current requirements by scanning the voter registrations and data entering the information into a database for follow up and further verification. We are confident in the accuracy of our system.”

Meanwhile, two other groups that have traditionally supported marijuana decriminalization and legalization came out against ResponsibleOhio’s plan.

In May, the Executive Committee for the Libertarian Party of Ohio voted unanimously to oppose ResponsibleOhio’s initiative. In their statement about the vote, the party said it objected to the “crony-capitalist nature” of the proposal, giving an “effective monopoly” to the people who would control the 10 growing sites established by the amendment.

“There is nothing ‘responsible’ about ResponsibleOhio,” said Political Director Tricia Sprankle in the party’s statement. “This isn’t a proposal to restore rights to Ohioans. It’s a crony scheme to line the pockets of a few wealthy investors.”

Likewise, the Green Party of Ohio also opposes ResponsibleOhio’s proposal. While the Green Party noted that it supports the decriminalization of medical and recreational marijuana use, as well as the release of Ohioans serving jail time for marijuana possession, they also took issue with the establishment of 10 growing sites throughout the state under ResponsibleOhio’s plan.

“What we would be doing is exchanging an illegal cartel for a legal one, representing the worst of cannabis capitalism,” said Green Party of Ohio Co-Chair Bob Fitrakis in the party’s statement.

Possibly the biggest roadblock for ResponsibleOhio’s amendment has come out of the General Assembly. A resolution to amend the state Constitution prohibiting any amendment “that would grant a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel, specify or determine a tax rate, or confer a commercial interest, right, or license to any person or nonpublic entity” was adopted on June 30.

Before the resolution passed, Secretary Husted made it clear that if voters approved the General Assembly’s initiative on Election Day, it would effectively kill ResponsibleOhio’s proposal, even if their initiative were also approved. In response, James called the General Assembly’s initiative an “anti-voter amendment” and said “if lawmakers had their way, they would trump the will of the people.”

“Right now, we aren’t focused on hypotheticals,” said James in a statement last month. “We continue to collect signatures from the hundreds of thousands of Ohioans who want to see marijuana legalization on the ballot, Ohioans who overwhelmingly want a chance to decide in November.”

ResponsibleOhio ultimately submitted almost 700,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s office, but as the group looks toward Election Day, challenges remain abundant. On Friday, The Columbus Dispatch reported that five county election boards are finding an average validity rate of less than 42 percent on petition signatures submitted by the group. The Dispatch highlighted signature issues similar to the registration irregularities mentioned by Husted last month; incorrect addresses, unregistered signers and false or illegible signatures.

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