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Pot Legalization Fails in Ohio, But Maine Supporters Say It Won't Affect the Effort Here

By a roughly two-to-one-margin, Ohio voters rejected a measure Tuesday that would have legalized marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use. Supporters of a legalization effort in Maine say Ohio's initiative was flawed, poorly timed and offers no real insight into what will happen in 2016.

But opponents of legalization say the results in Ohio reinforce a strategy they'll use to try to defeat any 2016 initiative here.

Ohio's was the only marijuana measure on the ballot in 2015 and it was an outlier in more ways than one. Unlike in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, which all legalized medical cannabis before voters approved wider legalization, the group Responsible Ohio was trying to do both at the same time.

The measure also would have created a network of ten sanctioned growing facilities, funded by private investors.

"From our perspective, they're not that different," says Scott Gagnon, who followed the Ohio campaign closely and is with Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, which is fighting legalization. "And I think it points to voters kind of waking up to some of the issues with that profit motive behind the legalization push."

In Ohio, the privately funded growing facilities were assailed by legalization opponents as a "marijuana monopoly." No one supporting next year's legalization effort in Maine has proposed that same model.

But Gagnon says opponents will still focus on the big money that typically flows into legalization efforts backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group.

"The difference between that (Responsible Ohio) initiative and an initiative written by the Marijuana Policy Project is that they (Responsible Ohio) are just way more blatant about it," he says. "They don't have quite as slick marketing or packaging to distract from the fact that it's all about profits and making money."

Late last month, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, joined forces with Legalize Maine, a statewide group. The two are now working on single signature gathering effort to get a single legalization initiative onto next year's ballot.

"That was the only question mark going into next year," says David Boyer, who heads the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

He says shifting public opinion on marijuana policy will ultimately be what decides the issue in Maine next year, not concerns about the money behind the legalization push.

"You look at the new Gallup poll last month," Boyer says. "Fifty-eight percent of Americans support ending marijuana prohibition. So the momentum is going up. This was just a speed bump."

Responsible Ohio spent roughly $25 million on its initiative. But it did not enjoy the backing of other Ohio advocacy groups or national organizations like the Marijuna Policy Project.

"What happened in Ohio yesterday was just poor political strategy, poor efforts at ballot writing and just a very bad environment to run an initiative like the one Responsible Ohio ran," says John Hudak, who follows marijuana policy and campaigns across the country in his job as managing editor of the FixGov Blog at the Brookings Institution.

He says the defeat in Ohio will have little to no bearing on legalization prospects next year in Maine, Nevada and other states.

"We have good data on this. When ballot initiatives like these, particularly marijuana, run in a presidential year, there are benefits," Hudak says. "The voters are younger. They're more liberal. And in Ohio, they didn't do what you did in Maine. And that is consolidate the advocacy groups around one idea."

Passing these kinds of initiatives, notes Hudak, is hard under any circumstances. But when you can't get all the advocacy groups behind you, it's nearly impossible.