Last week, nearly two-thirds of Ohio’s voters rejected a measure that would have legalized marijuana. That doesn’t mean the move toward legalization has hit its peak; instead, it signals another battle on the horizon, over control of this burgeoning legal industry.
Gallup polls have been showing for three years now that a majority of Americans favor full legalization of pot: 58 percent support the idea in the latest survey completed last month. Undoubtedly the national trend is toward legalization.
But in the Ohio vote, the issue wasn’t so much legalization as it was with the setup. A proposed constitutional amendment, dubbed Issue 3, would have legalized pot while also limiting commercial production to 10 sites supported by the initiative’s biggest financial backers. The ballot itself stated that the measure would “grant a monopoly” and a lot of voters turned out to reject it based on that alone.
Even the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) held its nose while endorsing the Ohio measure—referring to it as “a bitter pill to swallow” because of its capitalistic cronyism.
Here in New Mexico, full legalization may be years away, in part because Gov. Susana Martinez is so adamantly opposed to it. Even if lawmakers move a legalization bill to her desk, her veto would prevent it from becoming law.
That’s why state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Piño has, for two consecutive sessions, tried to advance the issue with a constitutional amendment that would send the legalization question directly to the voters instead of the governor’s desk. His resolution didn’t pass in either session, but he has said he’ll keep bringing it up.
Meanwhile, medical marijuana has been legal in New Mexico since 2007, and it’s a booming industry. According to health department numbers reported in The Taos News last week, the number of medical cannabis cardholders has more than doubled in three short years, from 8,206 at the end of 2012 to 18,628 at the end of October this year.
That’s why, in August, the state Department of Health more than doubled the number of growers’ licenses around the state—so supply can keep up with demand.
It’s pretty much a high-roller businessman’s game. Just to apply for a grower’s license requires a $10,000 fee up front, of which only $9,000 is nonrefundable.
Even communities that oppose the advance of medical or recreational marijuana are at a loss to stop it. In Roswell, elected officials have been fighting to prevent an old dairy plant from being converted into a medical pot farm, but in the grand scheme of things it’s a lost cause already. Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh, who insists on calling it “so-called medical marijuana,” is adamantly opposed to the pot farm, but he can’t seem to stop his city staff from issuing business licenses allowing medical pot dispensaries to set up shop in town.
One state at a time, the nation is moving toward full legalization. Twenty-three states have legalized medical cannabis and four states, along with Washington D.C., have legalized recreational pot. And after next year’s election cycle, when five more states will vote on the issue, that number may indeed double. The legalization issue, I think, is about to hit critical mass.
Then the debate will center on how to control it.
At some point I think we’ll see a showdown between big-money interests and local entrepreneurs—not unlike the battles fought between federal agents and moonshiners before and after Prohibition.
Like those Appalachia Mountain battles of old, the issue isn’t a moral one. It’s about money. The moonshiners weren’t paying taxes on their hooch, so the feds came after them. The same will be true for the illegal marijuana grows of the future.
Right now, marijuana is an issue for law enforcement, but with legalization it’ll become much more of an economic matter and not just a legal one. And its regulation will be front and center.
Now that I think about it, it already is. More than any other statewide vote so far, Ohio just demonstrated that reality.
Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.