When polling stations closed last week, the response to Ohio’s rejection of Issue 3 came fast and furious in local and national news. “Ohioans did the right thing on Tuesday by overwhelmingly rejecting a deeply flawed marijuana legalization ballot initiative,” Vikas Bajaj wrote in the New York Times. “The proposal would have amended the state’s constitution to grant a monopoly on commercial cultivation of cannabis to a small group of investors, which is a terrible idea.” The editorial board of Cleveland.com agreed: “Issue 3 is the wrong way to legalize marijuana for recreational use,” they wrote, “if there is even a right way to do it.”
In the wake of the first major anti-legalization vote after three years of seemingly intractable progress, what Bajaj and many others decried was not the halted expansion of legal cannabis, but rather the specter of Big Marijuana: the threat that pot, if legalized, would become as fierce and monopolistic a vice as Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol or Big Gun. And Issue 3, which was originally proposed by a group calling itself ResponsibleOhio and backed by wealthy investors (including retired NBA player Oscar Robertson and former boy bander and Buckeye State native Nick Lachey), seemed to embody those fears by granting the sole right to cultivate legal weed to just ten farms, all of which were owned and operated by these same investors. As November 3 approached, the specter of a marijuana monopoly seemed increasingly real: even as legalization was being touted as a social justice issue (by reducing the number of arrests of non-white males), it couldn’t escape the fact that it also smacked of a system that was inherently unfair, a symbolic gesture toward social equality that, in truth, benefitted only the already-privileged few.
What’s particularly interesting for drug historians, however, is not that this was one of the first rejections of legal marijuana in the past three years, or that it could be a harbinger of marijuana’s difficulty making inroads in the Midwest, but rather that arguments against Big Marijuana are once again rearing their ugly heads. The specter of Big Marijuana invoked in Ohio was only the most recent example in a debate that’s been going on for forty years. Newly-reinvigorated after Ohio’s rejection of Issue 3, whenever there are discussions of legalized or decriminalized marijuana, fears of corporate takeovers and monopolies are never far behind.
As I’ve mentioned before on this site, most of our current arguments over legalization are nothing new. Many are recycled, often almost verbatim, from conversations we’ve had about marijuana for the past four decades. But what makes debates about Big Marijuana relevant today is how surprisingly consistent they’ve remained. Activists for and against legalization have warned against a corporate takeover of the industry for years, with the only difference being how, and why, they’ve made their claims.