Few, if any, political issues have garnered as much attention in recent years as marijuana, and three national polls -- Gallup, Pew Research, and General Social Survey -- have all shown that a slim majority of respondents now have a favorable view of the still federally illegal drug.
Select states push for marijuana reform
However, as we've seen, slim public support for marijuana doesn't guarantee the expansion of marijuana legalization into new states, let alone reform in Congress.
Still, this hasn't stopped select states from attempting to expand the legality of medical marijuana or recreational marijuana. Four states (Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Colorado) have approved adult use of recreational marijuana, while 23 states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical conditions specified by each state.
The obvious benefit for chronic or terminally ill patients is that access to medical marijuana could represent a new pathway to alleviating disease or disorder symptoms. On the flipside, state and local governments are licking their chops at the potential tax revenue that could be generated from legalizing marijuana on a state level. For instance, in Colorado the education department could be looking at $40 million in additional revenue in the upcoming year depending on what residents of the state decide to do with the tax revenue collected from the sale of recreational marijuana in the state's upcoming election.
Ohio's marijuana vote isn't as cut-and-dried as you think
That brings us to one of the more intriguing upcoming elections this November: Ohio's push to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana at the same time. To date, no state has put an initiative on the ballot to legalize both uses at the same time. Ohio is looking to change that, with the Nov. 3, 2015 vote potentially adding a fifth state to the recreational-approved ranks.
The impetus behind the vote was ResponsibleOhio, which collected more than 550,000 signatures when only 305,591 were needed to get a marijuana initiative on the ballot. It goes to show just how much of a driving force marijuana truly is at the moment.
But beyond just the simple fact that no state has attempted to legalize recreational marijuana before having a medical marijuana program in place in the past, there are a multitude of other challenges this ballot initiative will have to overcome.
For starters, even with a substantial number of signatures and an overall "favorable" view of marijuana, support for the ballot initiative, known as Issue 3, may not be there. According to Cincinnati.com, in a straw poll conducted with 150 people, many of whom had a favorable view of marijuana, only 36% were in favor of Issue 3, even though 86% were in favor of legalizing the drug. It's true that 150 people isn't a representative sample of the Ohio population, but it's cause for concern with the election just a month away.
The bigger concern, and one potential reason why support for Issue 3 may be so low, is how Issue 3 guides the marijuana industry. Initially, some 10 private growers would be responsible for the entire state, and they'd be protected for a couple of years from the entrance of any new growers. Regulators have explained that they simply don't have the capacity to regulate more than 10 growers initially.
The problem is that having only 10 growers essentially creates an oligopoly in the Ohio marijuana industry. If competition is how prices are kept in check via forces of supply and demand, Ohio's 10 growers could essentially hold retailers hostage and keep marijuana prices up by keeping supply down artificially.
This is such a concern that another ballot initiative, Issue 2, has been proposed to "prohibit monopolies, oligopolies, and cartels from being written into the Ohio Constitution." The idea here is that Issue 2 may potentially override Issue 3 if both are approved, preventing just a handful of private growers from dominating the market. However, in order for Issue 2 to take effect if both it and Issue 3 pass, the Ohio Constitution states that Issue 2 would need to get more votes than Issue 3.
Bigger issues at stake
The marijuana debate in Ohio brings up a number of bigger issues at stake for the marijuana industry and consumers.
Perhaps the biggest issue remains the price of legalized state-regulated marijuana versus the marijuana that users in legal states can buy from illegal growers. If states limit the number of private growers to just a few, as Ohio is proposing, it could make it difficult to get the price of marijuana down over time to a level that would be somewhat competitive with the black market. If the price difference remains night-and-day, as it has in the early going in Minnesota, then users may choose to turn to the black market, depriving growers, retailers, and the state of money.
Secondly, the Ohio debate also demonstrates the sort of middle-ground many consumers take on marijuana. While many are of the opinion that they'd like to see it approved for medical purposes, there's less support when it comes to legalizing the drug for recreational adult use. Even with legal states, such as Colorado, just a quarter of all jurisdictions allow for the sale of marijuana.
And, as has been discussed many times before, the safety profile of marijuana remains in question. Until clinical research trials suggest that marijuana is safe over the long-term for a user's body and mind, or that the benefits of the currently illicit drug outweigh its risks for medicinal purposes, then we're unlikely to see any chance of change from the federal government.
Personally, I'll be eyeing the Ohio vote closely this November, because it could set the tone for future recreational expansion. However, even with a slim majority of the nation in favor of marijuana's approval, as long as the federal government remains firm on its stance that it's an illegal substance, I believe keeping your money away from the marijuana industry as an investment remains a smart bet.