Ohio citizens have had the power to drive constitutional changes through the ballot for 103 years, and in recent years they’ve sidestepped the General Assembly repeatedly to put key policy questions directly to voters.
Should indoor smoking be banned in public places? Should casinos be built in four cities? Should an anti-union bill passed by lawmakers be rejected?
None of those issues caused the legislature to mount a counter-ballot issue, but then none of those issues called for legalizing marijuana in what opponents say is a monopoly system.
Issue 2 seeks to change Ohio’s direct democracy rules and make it harder for certain citizen-initiated constitutional amendments to reach the ballot.
Make no mistake: Issue 2 is a direct assault on Issue 3, the citizen-initiated constitutional amendment to legalize weed for recreational and medical uses and allow limited home grow.
For those confused over the two issues, think of it this way: Issue 3 calls for the legalization of pot; Issue 2 seeks to nullify the legalization of pot. If both issues pass, most people think the courts will have to untangle the result.
Issue 2 says any proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot that creates a monopoly, oligopoly, cartel or special tax rate and deals with federally controlled substances — such as marijuana — shall not take effect, even if it passses.
Future proposed constitutional amendments of that type also would face a more challenging, two-step process to get on the ballot. The five-member Ohio Ballot Board would have to power to decide which proposed constitutional amendments reach the higher hurdles.
Opponents say it would take power away from the people and vest enormous power in the ballot board.
Common Cause Ohio Board Chairman Sam Gresham called Issue 2 a “poison pill for direct democracy” that will hurt Ohioans’ ability to enact important public policy changes when politicians won’t.
“It’s no surprise that some of the most important political reforms in our nation’s history have been adopted through the citizen’s initiative,” Gresham said in a written statement. “Oftentimes these initiatives are opposed by some career politicians, even though they serve the public interest.
“No one likes a monopoly, least of all Common Cause. But to understand the harm that Issue 2 would do to direct democracy in Ohio, you need to read its fine print.”
Court challenge likely
Proponents say Issue 2 is needed to protect against special interests using the Ohio Constitution for their own profit.
The League of Women Voters of Ohio supports Issue 2 on the grounds that it doesn’t eliminate the citizen iniative process but it “will help protect the state constitution.”
Lawmakers rushed in the last two weeks of June to get Issue 2 and its poison pill language on the ballot.
Analysis from the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, a non-partisan state agency that drafts bills and resolutions, said it’s not clear whether that poison pill wording would stand up to a court challenge. LSC also said Issue 2 would not apply to any monopoly language already in the Ohio Constitution.
In 2009, gambling business interests used the citizen initiative process to get Ohio voters to approve a constitutional amendment that authorized casinos at four sites. Backers of the campaign controlled those four sites.
Although the casino interests used the state constitution to establish a monopoly, state lawmakers failed to make a move to protect the constitution from further monopolies.
The marijuana issue caused them to act.
“The perseverance of the casinos offers a lesson that the reward to having a monopoly is an irresistible draw, and Ohio needs to act now to alter our process to protect the Constitution, and the people, from any additional special interest takeovers,” testified Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, a backer of Issue 2 and opponent of Issue 3.
Columbus attorney John Kulewicz told state lawmakers that the constitutions of 19 states specifically prohibit monopolies, some of which adopted these provisions in colonial times.
Ohio is one of 18 states that allow for a constitutional amendment to be taken directly to the voters. The initiative process grew out of a 20th century Progressive Era when people wanted a mechanism to push back against the powerful political machines that controlled many American cities and states.
State Rep. Mike Curtin, D-Marble Cliff, a former editor of the Columbus Dispatch and author of The Ohio Politics Almanac, is the chief architect of Issue 2.
“Our initiative is under threat like never before,” he said on the House floor. “It is under threat from monied special interests of the very type that it was designed to counter balance when it was adopted in 1912.”
ReponsibleOhio, the group sponsoring the Issue 3 campaign, denies the amendment would create a monopoly.
“One hundred percent of the over 1,100 business licenses for retail, dispensary and manufacturing are open to the public,” the group says on its website. “There are 10 initial commercial growing sites. They will be operated by separate companies and have to compete with each other on price and quality, which is the exact opposite of a monopoly.”
The group also argues that the state can add licenses if the 10 do not meet demand, as well as revoke licenses for bad apples and replace them with new license holders.
At a Sept. 23 forum at Sinclair Community College, ResponsibleOhio’s Ian James and Chris Kershner, vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, went back and forth on the issue of whether Issue 3 created a monopoly.
James said the industry would not be closed to just those sponsoring the grow sites.
But Kershner charged that $1 billion could flow to James’ “10 rich friends who wrote this amendment. That is not the way to govern your state, no matter what the issue is, marijuana or not,” he said.