Ohio voters did not reject the legal regulation of cannabis – they only rejected one particular form of legalisation. We think they were wise to do so.
Issue 3, the cannabis legalisation initiative in Ohio, failed on Tuesday. This may appear surprising in the middle of a wave of support for marijuana legalisation, but it does not mean that the people of Ohio opted for prohibition. According to polls, a majority supported the legal regulation of cannabis. They only rejected the concept of a constitutionally-mandated oligopoly to control the legal cannabis market. Issue 3 would have introduced a system whereby only a few large companies were permitted to grow and distribute marijuana. The initiative divided drug policy reformers in North America. The Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project abstained from endorsing the measure, but NORML, the oldest marijuana reform organisation, offered a grudging endorsement, with the reservation that an oligopoly was a bad idea.
As Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote in his CNN opinion piece, “There’s something in a constitutionally-mandated oligopoly for an agricultural product, that just seems un-American”. Well, as a European, I think there’s also something very un-European about it. It simply seems unfair to restrict marijuana production to a handful of big corporations, when that restriction can only be modified by amending the constitution. Allocation of licences should be done by fair and open competition.
The supporters of Issue 3 also had valid arguments on their side. Marc Emery, the self-proclaimed Canadian ‘Prince of pot’, wrote, on his Facebook page, “We fight to stop arrest and punishment and prison. Any measure that moves us from complete prohibition to less prohibition / legalisation, thats what an activist does. A true activist cannot stop that consistent and worthy goal, just because someone they don’t approve of is unworthy or undeserving in making money.”
I don’t agree with him. That’s not because I, as an activist, don’t realise that in a capitalist society, for-profit corporations, (rather than idealists and non-profit collectives), will earn money from selling marijuana in a legal market. But what I like in the concept of legal regulation (I don’t really like the term legalisation) is that it differs from prohibition in its flexibility: Prohibition offers a simplistic and brutal solution to a complex problem – which is why it doesn’t work. Legal regulation is quite the opposite. It can take many forms, it can be adjusted to market needs, public health considerations and constitutional principles. You can only prohibit the distribution of a substance in one way – but you can regulate it in a great variety of ways. I don’t support any form of legal regulation that favours the interests and profits of a few corporations over those of the general public.
In the legalisation-at-any-costs approach, I sense the same simplistic narrowness that I dislike among ardent prohibitionists. I think the voters in Ohio were wise enough to reject the black-and-white fallacy, and to realise that they have multiple options available for regulating a substance. While we fight to end the global war on drugs, we should not forget the very principles that led us to question prohibition in the first place.