the Ohio marijuana initiative and the corruption of our republic

Ohioans vote tomorrow on the Marijuana Legalization Initiative, Issue 3. It is like a stew composed of horrible aspects of our current politics–not legalizing pot, which is fine with me, but allowing rich people to buy public policy, governments to enable rent-seeking and oligopolies, political professionals to manipulate voters, and special interests to extract private benefits in return for enabling popular reforms to pass.

Issue 3 would legalize marijuana but restrict large-scale cultivation to the ten individuals who bankrolled the referendum. The outcomes for the people of Ohio may be better if Issue 3 passes than under the status quo, because ten may be a good number of licensed producers. Zero legal distributors is too few. Prohibiting marijuana creates an illegal industry that causes huge damage. Also, I am enough of a libertarian to believe that if consenting adults want to do something like smoke pot, the presumption should favor their liberty to do so as long as they follow laws protecting others. On the other hand, if anyone can grow and market marijuana, prices will fall and usage will rise, which will have serious consequences for public health. Licensing ten growers may inflate prices and allow the government to regulate the industry effectively–a good balance.

But the voters are not asked to approve ten licenses that go to the highest bidders. They are presented with the opportunity to give state-mandated monopolies to ten wealthy rent-seekers. It’s like the days when kings gave favored courtiers the royal privilege to manufacture specific items in return for gifts and favors. Only it is worse than that, because it enlists the voters in creating these monopolies. In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt noted that corruption was traditionally a sin of rulers, but with democracy, the people can for the first time be corrupted. Issue 3 is blatant yet typical effort to do that.

To their credit, Ohioans have also proposed Issue 2, which specifically prohibits any state amendment that “grants or creates a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel, specifies or determines a tax rate, or confers a commercial interest, commercial right, or commercial license that is not available to other similarly situated persons.” If both initiatives pass, interesting litigation will ensue. But even if Issue 2 passes, this is really no way to govern.

See also: bottom-up struggles against corruption: a frontier of democracy and the Supreme Court reflects the “degeneracy of the times”.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.