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US marijuana legalization stumbles in Ohio

Legal marijuana won't gain additional ground in the US this year. Ohio has rejected a controversial ballot initiative that would have established what critics called a cannabis cartel.

The only marijuana legalization effort on the ballot in the United States this year has suffered crushing defeat, with 65 percent of voters in the Midwestern state of Ohio upholding prohibition.

Legalization has steadily advanced in Western states that have a liberal streak on social issues. Colorado was the first to end prohibition in 2012, followed by Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Washington DC has also legalized marijuana.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans nationwide now support legalizing marijuana for both recreational and medicinal use. It's the third straight year that a majority of the country has been in favor of ending cannabis prohibition.

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With more than 11 million residents, Ohio would have been the most populous state to end prohibition, and the first to do so in the Midwest, a region that has conservative leanings.

Marijuana remains illegal under US federal law. The Obama administration has allowed legalization to move forward on the state level, but that could change with the 2016 presidential election.

"If we get a more conservative president in the fall of 2016, these state legalization issues might start getting shut down by the federal government," Isaac Campos, an expert on the history of drug policy and a professor at the University of Cincinnati, told DW.

'Marijuana monopoly'

The ballot measure in Ohio, called Issue 3, was controversial not just among prohibitionists. Prominent pro-legalization groups refused to back the initiative. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 52 percent of Ohio residents support legal cannabis for recreational use.

The Ohio chapter of the National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) was officially neutral. According to chapter president Brandy Sheaffer, many NORML members opposed Issue 3 because it would have placed the marijuana industry under the control of a small group of investors.

Critics called it a "marijuana monopoly" and a "cartel." Through an amendment to Ohio's constitution, production would have been restricted to 10 grow sites run by two dozen investors who fronted the startup capital. An additional site could have been added in four years if demand was not being met.

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"Principally a lot of opposition surrounds the business model," Curt Steiner, a spokesman for Ohioans against Marijuana Monopolies, told DW. "That it was put together by a few wealthy investors who are motivated by making a ton of money by cornering the market on marijuana."

Ohioans against Marijuana Monopolies is a broad coalition that opposed Issue 3 on public health and safety grounds. Edibles would have been legalized, and the group expressed concerned that marijuana-laced cookies and candies could have ended up in the hands of children.

Steiner also criticized the number of retail outlets as excessive. He said the 1,100 locations permitted under the measure would have outnumbered McDonald's and Starbucks in Ohio.

'Reefer madness arguments'

ResponsibleOhio, the investor-led group that put Issue 3 on the ballot, dismissed those criticisms as scare tactics. According to Faith Oltman, municipal governments would have decided whether to allow retail shops in their communities, and sales would be restricted to adults 21 years and older.

Responsible Ohio claims that $554 million in tax revenue (507 million euros) would have been generated annually, with 85 percent of that going to fire departments, police, infrastructure and other public services.

"They're sticking with the reefer madness arguments of the past," Oltman, a spokeswoman for ResponsibleOhio, told DW. "The reality is drug dealers are selling to kids without IDing them."

"When we take marijuana out of the shadows and tax, regulate and make it safe, we're IDing people and making sure they're 21," she said.

*Correction: A previous version of this article had paraphrased Dr. Isaac Campos as saying the vote in Ohio signals legalization is not a foregone conclusion. He in fact said history suggests legalization is not a foregone conclusion.

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