ResponsibleOhio Storms the Ballot: Inside Ohio's Corrupt Medical Marijuana Rollout

11/02/2017 03:40 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2017
Buddie, the “gender neutral” marijuana legalization mascot
Associate Press
Buddie, the “gender neutral” marijuana legalization mascot

Continued from Part 1

“I am Nick Lachey, Ohio is my home and I care very deeply about the people here, which is why I am proud to be a part of a movement that is going to create jobs, reinvigorate our economy and improve the safety of our communities,” Lachey said in a commercial promoting the ResponsibleOhio (RO) marijuana legalization campaign.

Lachey, who is currently starring on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars, was born in Kentucky and raised in the Cincinnati area before earning his millions as one-quarter of 98 Degrees, the third most popular “boy band” of the late 1990s. He rocketed to fame as the husband of Jessica Simpson in the MTV reality series “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica” from 2003 until 2005, shortly before the couple divorced. In 2015 he was one of the most recognizable faces of ResponsibleOhio.

Along with Arizona Cardinal defensive end Frostee Rucker and designer Nanette Lepore, Lachey and other wealthy local investors on the RO campaign pledged a $20 million war chest to write themselves into the state constitution as the owners of the only legal marijuana gardens in the state. Each investor, and the LLCs they used for their farms, were registered with the secretary of state with a series of numbers starting with 768-2677, or “POTBOSS” on a phone dial pad.

Between 2010 and 2014, a grassroots reform organization, the Ohio Rights Group (ORG), appeared to be on track to write Ohioans’ rights to use, possess and grow cannabis for medical purposes into the state constitution. In 2014, one of the “pot bosses”, David Bruno, was hired as a consultant to help the ORG fundraise and organize to get on the ballot. Instead, Bruno sought investors for RO and left the ORG broke and divided. After RO announced its signature-gathering efforts in January 2015, it was clear the ORG was about to get squeezed out of its ability to influence reform.

The ORG’s members, leadership and supporters knew they had to either try to beat them or join them, but there was a split of opinions and ideologies. When then-president John Pardee suggested they take a financial settlement and then endorse and support the campaign, the group fractured and became two: the ORG, which endorsed and campaigned for RO, and Citizens Against Responsible Ohio (CARO), which actively campaigned against RO and harassed and threatened what was left of the ORG. CARO was loosely affiliated with a broader coalition, No to RO, which was mostly made up of members of a third group, Legalize Ohio/Ohioans to End Prohibition (OTEP). OTEP encouraged people unhappy with RO to support No to RO then and wait for their 2016 initiative instead. The loosely-organized factions fought battles around the state throughout the summer of 2015 leading up to the election.

Ultimately, however, ResponsibleOhio would sink its own ship, laying the path for the state to take control of the issue.

The Art of the Deal

When the ORG made the controversial decision to endorse RO and campaign with them in late summer 2015, rumors flew around about what sort of deal was behind their change of heart. It all started with the ORG seeking a potential $1.3 million settlement on the money it says was diverted from their campaign in 2014. One of the most pervasive rumors among RO investors was that, after the million-dollar settlement was off the table, Pardee had tried to sell the ORG’s collected signatures, Nationbuilder account and mailing lists for $150,000 to Ian James, ResponsibleOhio’s leader, a deal which he turned down.

Emails from February through April 2015 show during those months the ORG courted its own investors for a last attempt at the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment (OCRA), and even explored promising business licenses in exchange for campaign finance, like RO. The attempts to self-fund continued to fall short as the RO machine built momentum.

In March, Mary Jane Borden and an attorney affiliated with the ORG* arranged a private meeting with one of RO’s more prominent investors, Sir Alan Mooney, who they had initially courted for OCRA investment the year prior. In emails to the ORG board, they stated the meeting was to discuss trying to get Mooney to switch allegiances because they had heard he was unhappy with the campaign.

[*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that John and Linda Pardee attended this meeting. They did not attend. Internal ORG emails confirm the meeting and its contents, corroborated by Mooney. ]

“It was very clandestine, they were afraid to be seen in public,” Mooney said.

Mooney says he was expecting to talk about their differences over the campaign and to get to know one another better and was shocked when they offered their assets and support in exchange for $50,000. He says as a businessman, the first thing he does in a negotiation is “question the asset” and so, after pointing out the reasons why he felt $50,000 was an overpriced ask, he declined the offer. Mooney says the whole meeting left him very distrustful of the ORG.

“They had a mess on their hands in my opinion. I didn’t trust any of these people, I didn’t trust anything they were saying,” Mooney said.

In June 2015, Borden fielded a phone call from RO’s attorney, Chris Stock, who made an unspecified offer, one which Borden mentioned in a frustrated email to the board about rumors the ORG was planning on “selling out”.

“We began talking about a so-called ‘deal’ after we met with Chris [Stock] and Bobby [George] about two weeks ago. Chris called me on Friday before I left for ComFest [a local yearly anti-corporate community festival in Columbus] to fill me in on an idea that he had… All I’ll say is that something is in the works,” Borden wrote.

Months after the March meeting, Mooney says he learned that the ORG had offered James its assets for $150,000, well before they approached him for the sale. In a ResponsibleOhio meeting shortly after his March meeting with Borden, Mooney says he mentioned the ORG had offered its assets to him for $50,000 and that he had declined. He says shortly after that James had come back to the group saying they had “taken care of [them], we got what we wanted, and it turned out to be nothing, but we got his endorsement and that is all we were really after anyway.”

Mooney says he doesn’t know what the final deal was, but shortly after the deal was made, the ORG began campaigning for and with ResponsibleOhio. To this day, Borden supports Ian James and James “Jimmy” Gould, who she says are “really great guys”, although she still believes they used David Bruno to infiltrate the ORG to divert investors from funding the OCRA, including Mooney.

Mooney knew he wanted to use his money and power to fund legislative change, but wanted to make sure his money would go to successfully passing a law that provided safe access to patients as soon as possible.

He said in his communications the prior year with then ORG director Lissa Satori that he had considered writing checks up to a $4 million to the ORG to get the law passed, but became concerned by the group’s infighting and rumors about pocketed donations.

Mooney was initially brought into the RO campaign by former ORG consultant David Bruno and former executive director Lissa Satori. Mooney viewed James and Gould’s campaign as more capable of actually getting a law on the ballot and successfully passed. He became one of the campaign’s first investors.

Today, he says he has a lot of regrets related to what happened with ResponsibleOhio.

“I am ashamed, is what I am. I am very ashamed,” says Mooney. “But I am not giving up this battle because I think I may be called to it by God, but at this point I don’t know who I am fighting or who I should trust.”

Sir Alan Mooney
Sir Alan Mooney

He says he got into the medical cannabis fight because his goddaughter has intractable epilepsy and he knew he had the resources and connections to make it legal to help her and others like her. As a wealth manager, he also saw financial opportunity in legalization and considered it a win-win.

Mooney is a prominent Columbus-based financial advisor. Culturally, Mooney straddles a few lines. He lived for many years in the Bahamas and often looks as if he just got back from a month in the Caribbean sun. He is also an ordained “holy man”, “a compassionate capitalist”, a counterculture loving marijuana supporter and influential Republican donor who worked for much of his professional career for Sir John Templeton. Templeton, who died in 2008, was a billionaire investor and one of the of the richest people in the world before becoming a philanthropist and giving away a lot of his personal wealth. Mooney, an ordained bishop in the Society of Thinking Christians, a subsect of the Anglican church, both manages investment funds as well as a handful of charities in the Columbus area.

Before he became a ResponsibleOhio investor, he had begun meeting with the families of what he calls “children out of time,” or children with deadly and debilitating illnesses that could benefit from cannabis. From floating the topic around his own mostly-Republican political circles, he says he didn’t think there was enough interest or political will to get something passed. And then in the spring of 2014, he met an activist mother who really got his ear.

“I basically had said ‘no, no, no’ and then up shows Lissa Satori,” Mooney said.

At the time Satori was still working with the ORG. Mooney says Satori asked him to “be the face of the legalization of marijuana in Ohio” and that his financial and political ties were what they needed to successfully get safe access to Ohio patients. Satori became Mooney’s point person, his connection to the activist community. Still, Mooney says he didn’t see a chance of the ORG’s rights-based bill passing, despite Satori’s requests for money.

“It’s a nice naive thing, but it’s not real. That will never get through in Ohio,” Mooney said.

But more importantly, he says he didn’t see the ORG itself as capable of actually getting something successfully to the ballot and passed into law. He said the main asset ORG had was the Nationbuilder account with 100,000 volunteers on it that they had “used and abused, and didn’t even know how to use.”

“I am still thinking I am doing this for the children,” Mooney said. “That is the only thought in my heart, I am going to go out and take my money and make it legal for [their] health… In one sense I am probably the silliest, dumbest guy on planet Earth.”

But Mooney said Ian James had sold him on the ability to get an amendment passed. In Mooney’s Republican political circles James was “the enemy” because of his work on liberal and Democrat-led political issues, but with an issue that was largely becoming bipartisan to voters, it seemed like the only plausible way forward.

The Strategy Network

Like 25 other states and Washington D.C., Ohio citizens can place any legislation on the ballot if enough valid signatures are collected and approved by the attorney general. An overwhelming majority of marijuana legislation in the US has been passed through the ballot, starting with California’s Proposition 215 in 1996, which made it the first state to legalize medical cannabis. Beyond cannabis, ballot initiatives have grown in popularity in recent years as a method to directly push corporate interests. Thanks in part to the “Super PACs” brought about by Citizens United, the existing industry that catered to campaigners has become a billion dollar business, one dubbed “Ballot Measure Inc.” by Truth-out.org.

Firms like Ian James’s Strategy Network work with massive budgets to ensure the passage of legislation. James prides himself in taking on the most difficult issues; he pushed a state casino oligopoly very similar to RO through the Ohio ballot into law in 2009 and also advocated for the legalization of gay marriage. He works closely with data strategists from former President Obama’s campaigns, who had become respected for their work utilizing data, social media and real people to influence the right voters to get to the polls.

“This is a business,” James told Truth-out about ResponsibleOhio. “What we’re doing in changing the constitution to legalize marijuana will lead to more than 10,000 people working in the state, billions of dollars being generated in new revenue. That money is also going to flow into local communities. But no one creates an industry of that magnitude without being paid for it.”

What was lost on James was that he wasn’t creating an industry, he was legalizing one.

“As this Amendment cements the right to purchase marijuana in Ohio, it will be a target for those who hold tight to the dated notion that marijuana be treated as a harmful drug,” James wrote in the ResponsibleOhio Prospectus.

While cementing only the right to “purchase marijuana in Ohio” into the state constitution, the existing industry would remain illegal.

The majority of Ohio’s in-state cannabis supply is grown in the southeastern Appalachian region that borders Kentucky and West Virginia. Like California’s Emerald Triangle, which was reliant on the declining lumber industry before cannabis cultivation became more viable, the region is picturesque, wealthy in resources and economically devastated. Where opportunity is scarce, people turn to the illegal goods market to make ends meet. In southern Ohio, the coal and manufacturing industries may have dried up, but the demand for illegal drugs never does.

By disregarding the existing underground supply networks and stakeholders, James was setting himself up for opposition more influential in cannabis reform than the anti-drug lobby: the pro-cannabis lobby. But in James’s mind, the biggest hurdle to overcome was conservative anti-drug voters, which is why he felt the best way to push this through the ballot would be an off-year, 2015, a strategy he says was effective for him in the past.

“Whether you appreciate the casinos or not, they became a legally run entity in Ohio because my firm drafted the blueprint plan for that winning campaign for an off-year election,” James wrote in a message to the ORG board in February 2015 shortly after RO went public. “This occurred after I had been involved in the 1996, 2006 and 2008 gambling races and had seen how even numbered years failed. While off year elections seemed to many to be unconventional in thought, the reality is the off year election cycles provide incredible opportunities for victory.”

James made his intentions with the ResponsibleOhio plan clear, the goal was to make a return on the funders’ investment and to test a national for-profit legalization strategy.

“Our goal with this business opportunity is to uniquely position Principal Funders for a growth market in Ohio where annual sales are expected to exceed $1 billion dollars…Winning the battleground state of Ohio will have an incredibly positive impact on the Midwest and nation. Being on the front line of a projected $1 billion annual sale potential is one thing. But being able to replicate this victory elsewhere places Principal Funders in a stronger position for ROI [return on investment] in other ventures. In short, if it works here, it will work anywhere, which follows the old saying, ‘As Goes Ohio So Goes the Nation,’” wrote James.

In selling the opportunity to create and corner an exclusive market in Ohio, James remarks throughout the RO Prospectus that the population of people old enough to purchase cannabis in Ohio would be almost exactly equal to the combined populations generating the billion-dollar headlines in Washington and Colorado. Both states voted to legalize marijuana in 2012 and rolled out commercial sales in 2014.

James was floating both a prospectus for passing the initiative into law as well as business and investment opportunities via his own firm, Green Light Acquisitions (GLA). GLA was founded nearly simultaneously with RO and began laying plans for Ohio’s industry before the Strategy Network even started collecting signatures. If RO passed, Green Light was ready to finance Ohio’s market too. In November 2014, James and Gould’s then attorney, Chris Stock, filed all the pot bosses’ grows with the SEC, listing Gould and James as the owners and valuing each grow at $4 million.

The first investor James approached outside his own circle was Sir Alan Mooney, referred to him by Lissa Satori.

Mooney said when he first met with James, James put on a “dog and pony show” that “knocked [his] socks off”. James knew Mooney had been courted by the ORG for donations and was motivated by getting a medical initiative passed as soon as possible. Mooney says James had a PowerPoint presentation ready, the research done and a business plan in place that included backup plans and strategies, some of which he felt were unethical, but to him showed James could absolutely get the job done.

“I felt like I needed to take a bath, just talking to this guy made me feel dirty. But for that first meeting, I [still] walked out of there blown away by Ian. He was so organized and properly thought out. He understood how things worked, there was a backup plan to a backup plan. Everything was in place to get something passed,” Mooney said.

James was more than confident he could get full legalization passed because he was working with the best political strategists in the world. James had hired Jeremy Bird of 270 Strategies, the engineer of the data-based human-run campaigns that helped Barack Obama win the presidency twice.

“Dubbed the campaign’s ‘Field General’ by Rolling Stone Magazine, Jeremy was listed among the ‘Obama Campaign’s Real Heroes’. In his biography, he refers to himself as “a former Harvard divinity student who took to political organizing as though it were his higher calling.”.

“Across these roles, Jeremy helped create and implement the Obama campaign’s neighborhood team organizing model—an approach which transformed organizing in the presidential politics by merging people-focused community organizing with empowering and inclusive digital technology and cutting-edge data analytics. The Wall Street Journal described Jeremy’s theory of organizing as ‘one part data and one part emotional connection.’”

In addition to Bird, the campaign also touted one of the state’s most influential Republican lobbyists, Neil Clark of Grant Street Consultants as a member of his core team. It was a bipartisan group strategically designed for the most possible legislative influence.

After being impressed by James’s business plan, Mooney met next with the campaign’s chief financier James Gould at his office in Cincinnati, where he decided to formally invest. Gould is both a sports agent and the founding partner and manager at the now-defunct Walnut Group, a Cincinnati-based private equity firm that took the Build-A-Bear Workshop franchise public in 2009. He has invested in and produced several Broadway plays, including Jersey Boys, Spiderman and Hairspray. Gould had brought in his sister, Barbara, as one of the first investors before Mooney joined the campaign. According to donation research tools made available by DonorSearch, Both Goulds are regular political contributors to state level and national Democratic candidates.

Mooney says Gould brought credibility to the project and, like Satori before him, told him he was “the perfect guy to be the face of [ResponsibleOhio].”

Left, James Gould. Right, Ian James. After the defeat of ResponsibleOhio
Left, James Gould. Right, Ian James. After the defeat of ResponsibleOhio

Growing Anxiety

Mooney, and partner Dr. Suresh Gupta, who would get the designation POTBOSS1, sought to establish a grow in Pataskala, a rural community just to the east of Columbus city limits. Each investment group was technically assigned two grow “units”, which they then traded and diluted. Mooney had early on conflicted with the campaign inner circle, and after grow units were formally assigned, David Bruno approached Mooney asking for one of his. Mooney says Bruno reminded him that he and Lissa Satori were the ones who had brought him the investment opportunity in the first place.

Mooney agreed to sell the unit and help Bruno find investors, but would not give it to him directly. In response, Bruno went over Mooney’s head and straight to James Gould to ask for the grow. Recognizing the value of the grow had already gone up, Gould sold it instead to Cleveland restaurateur Bobby George. Mooney says Bruno had already “structured a deal with Oberlin” before getting the grow, and when it was sold to George, he had “basically screwed Oberlin in the process.” According to Mooney, George was completely unaware of what had happened until he had approached Mooney directly to inquire about it.

“[Bruno] is too slick, but not smart,” Mooney said.

Mooney claims Ian James tried to “buy his silence” on the exchange, which he declined.

The other “pot bosses” were a mix of wealthy landowners who had no experience in cannabis. The way the legislation was structured, less than 160 Ohioans qualified to invest in the first place. Not only did the grower/ investors need to submit to a background check, their finances were assessed to verify if they were capable of both financing their part of the campaign but also running a tightly-regulated mega grow.

Mooney says he had one hundred percent of his harvest already “sold”, even before the law passed, and that a lot of it would be used for research. Other investors had similar deals already made. But, as Mooney explored his grow site, and met with other growers and stakeholders on the issue, he became increasingly concerned about the way cultivation had been set up.

If they were passing the law for economic opportunity, it would be lost on all the black market growers already operating in Ohio. If they were passing it for the sick children or to help combat the opiate epidemic, spending one to two years and millions of dollars to set up an industry to provide medicine that already existed within state limits wasn’t the most efficient way to bring any of them relief.

“I was not for rigging the system,” Mooney says. “I wanted to try and un-rig system. There were ten people who had put up the money, but that was just the PAC money. The original ten each [pledged] $2 million to a PAC, we got nothing out of the PAC other than being on the ballot. When we wrote the amendment law the money for the PAC group had already been put together. My original conversation with Jimmy and Ian went, ‘We need for every grower to be given immunity and a guarantee of non-prosecution. Let them come forward and get a license and be legal tax paying citizens for God’s sake. We are making these people into criminals’, it was ridiculous.”

James confirms Mooney’s assertion that the investors were in before the language was written, but he maintains that it was not he, but the investors, who wanted the oligopoly.

“Ohio voters wanted what was more akin to other states, an open market, regulated. That clearly was where folks’ visions were, but we had the reality of investors who did not want that. We are not getting the funding for a campaign that would be structured that way,” James said.

Mooney said he tried to push James and Gould to open the opportunity more but they responded to him that they wouldn’t do that because it would reduce the investors’ returns. He says he tried to reason with them on their own level, about money, saying it could hurt their campaign’s chances of passing if they didn’t include personal non-commercial cultivation.

Shortly after, with mounting opposition against the cultivation oligopoly, they fell under extreme pressure from activists vowing to defeat it. In February 2015, they threw out their current petitions and started over with slightly adjusted language that added four plants of home grow. Under the new addition, citizens could pay $50 to register their home grow site with the state and would have to submit to searches.

“I don’t think Jimmy [Gould]’s view as a capitalist is totally wrong. It needs to be blended with a lot of compassion and reality to the other side of this. That is what I tried to talk to Jimmy about in a way he would understand… but he didn’t seem to have much of moral compass, which is not unusual in those sorts of circles,” Mooney said. “What meant something to Jimmy was getting this bill passed and making the money.”

James and Gould were unapologetic about their long game with the ResponsibleOhio campaign: sure, they wanted to provide safe access to the sick and legalize an industry that could benefit all Ohioans, but when it came down to it, it was just business, and Ohio was just a starting point, but certainly not the endgame.

Before the election they also floated business plans to high-worth investors advertising a $30 million investment opportunity involving Green Light Acquisitions’ licenses in Ohio and western states. The plans included pushing for vertical integration whenever possible, which is the surest way to control supply chains and eliminate smaller competitors.

James and Gould weren’t just confident, they were cocky. When asked by local media if there was anything that could stop the initiative from passing, James quipped that the only thing that could possibly derail ResponsibleOhio was “a meteor striking the earth.”

Unable to find widespread support in activist circles, or even the campaign’s own investors, James himself became the face of ResponsibleOhio. He made an awkward ambassador for the legalization movement, appearing in a suit and stumbling over talking points about compassion, racial disparities in drug arrests and the economic potential of the cannabis industry for Ohioans while also unapologetically pursuing money, power and control of the state’s market and providing a return for his investors.

As the campaign got closer to qualifying for ballot placement in July, the opposition to the cultivation oligopoly was reaching a fever pitch, a topic James addressed in conversation with OhioBar.

“There is no collusion, we have to compete,” James said, adding that those who couldn’t invest in the grows had plenty of opportunity working as an employee somewhere else in the supply chain.

“Most states start with limited licenses so we can properly regulate them,” James said when questioned about the grow model.

James cited the rollout of medical programs in New York and Florida, both of which had limited vertically-integrated licensing only available to the wealthiest investors.

The Summer of Legalization

While the pot bosses were planning the industry and the ORG was imploding from within over rumors its leadership had “sold out”, a third group emerged saying it also wanted to change Ohio’s constitution to legalize marijuana: Legalize Ohio 2016, and its accompanying political action committee, Ohioans to End Prohibition (OTEP). OTEP would also quickly become some of the loudest opposition to RO.

OTEP was formed in the summer of 2014 by Jacob Wagner and Sri Kavuru. Originally, they had not intended to go public with their campaign until the 2016 presidential election season. Kavuru and Wagner said the emergence of ResponsibleOhio influenced them to take their campaign public right away, so Ohioans knew there was a viable alternative around the corner.

Kavuru, in his early 30s, is much younger and far more technologically savvy than the leadership at either ORG or RO; he got his start in drug policy reform working for Nationbuilder, which has become one of the most important political tools of the 21st century. It was initially leveraged at the large scale for former president Barack Obama’s campaigns and now so ubiquitous in politics it was used to power both Brexit and the campaign of President Trump.

The software gives political campaigns an affordable data-driven all-in-one solution for managing targeted media. Nationbuilder interacts with social media accounts and allows political campaigns to collect data on anyone interacting with their campaign. A “like” or “comment” on Facebook or a Twitter interaction provides a data file and insight on individuals and their communities, as opposed to polled demographics, that empower well-coordinated grassroots and large scale political movements to drive the right voters and influencers to action.

While working with Nationbuilder, Kavuru worked nationally with groups like Americans for Safe Access (ASA), Parents4Pot and Maryland NORML. Originally from Ohio, Kavuru lived for a few years in California, where he volunteered for the Proposition 19 campaign in 2010 and worked briefly at The Arcview Group, the first angel investor network for the cannabis industry.

“I and a couple other people had known the ORG and some others as well, and started kicking around the idea of doing some sort of an initiative, taking a different approach, and run more of a data-driven campaign,” Kavuru said.

Kavuru and Jacob Wagner, his friend and attorney who had drafted Legalize Ohio’s initiative, met early with representatives of ResponsibleOhio regarding their vocal opposition. They say they were asked to stop their opposition to RO and instead endorse it in meetings with restaurateur and investor Bobby George.

“The main crux of the deal was that RO would have paid for our signatures so that we could get on the ballot [in 2016] on the condition that we re-wrote the law to protect their monopoly in some way, shape or form. We turned it down pretty quickly, there was no way we would have been able to justify re-writing the law to protect their monopoly,” Wagner said.

But Kavuru says that as the election neared and the support for RO in the polls kept dropping, he refocused his energies on passing Issue 2.

In June, shortly before RO qualified for the ballot, legislators unhappy with the legalization plan decided to push their own legislation onto the 2015 ballot alongside it. Issue 2, the Ohio Initiated Monopolies Amendment, if passed, would invalidate Issue 3 (RO) and prevent any other group of special interests from proposing a citizens’ initiative they could directly profit from. Before an issue could be placed on the ballot, it would have to pass review by the Ohio Ballot Board, and if approved, it would be split into two separate measures, which would also need to both pass.

Advocates were quick to criticize the legislation, saying it would make future ballot initiatives near impossible. The RO campaign (by then ballot Issue 3) changed its messaging from simply “Yes on 3” to “No on 2, Yes on 3”. Critics say that because Issue 2 required ballot language to be reviewed by an appointed board, that it would make it far more difficult and expensive to place citizens’ initiatives on the state ballot. Kavuru does not agree.

“That is based on the idea that you can’t guarantee someone economic return for putting up the money. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing that people who bankroll initiatives should benefit-- but to an extent,” Kavuru says.

Secretary of State Jon Husted asserted that Issue 2 would technically take effect before Issue 3 if both passed and would nullify RO. Ian James disagreed.

“Jon is flat wrong. He’s not checking with his legal counsel. If the two issues are in conflict and voted upon on the same election, the issue with the most positive votes prevails. I’ve had lawyers looking at it,” James told Columbus Alive.

Kavuru contends Issue 2 was necessary to stop James’s oligopoly ballot amendment initiatives.

“The only way to shut it [RO] down for good forever was Issue 2. That is why I chose to support it, it wasn’t anything personal with RO. It’s a good thing for the state of Ohio and it’s a good law,” Kavuru said.

Because of the emergence of Legalize Ohio/OTEP, many patients and other grassroots activists turned off by the fall out at the ORG and the campaign tactics of RO joined the OTEP campaign. Various patient volunteers say that in the vehement opposition to RO and push to pass Issue 2, they realized OTEP wasn’t the solution they were looking for either.

“Initially, I did not like ResponsibleOhio. It had to do with the corporate, the monopoly thing and there was also OTEP [as an alternative],” said Amy Wolfinbarger. “That was my stance in the beginning, and then a couple months in you kinda started to see the writing on the wall.”

Wolfinbarger is a chronic pain patient who has maintained neutral or positive relationships with most Ohio activists and has been a prominent volunteer for Miami Valley NORML (Cincinnati area), the Ohio Rights Group, Ohioans for Medical Marijuana (Marijuana Policy Project’s 2016 campaign) and, towards the end of the 2015 election, even became a supporter of ResponsibleOhio.

“We need this in Ohio, I need it myself. I need it to acquire this medication. [It is] much larger than just my problems and I had to become way more involved,” Wolfinbarger says of her continued work in Ohio’s divisive activist community

Wolfinbarger says that OTEP portrayed a professional campaign with full funding, and provided a reasonable alternative to ResponsibleOhio that, as a patient, she felt comfortable promoting instead of RO, but she and others became suspect of OTEP leadership’s motivations when it felt like their efforts were too focused on bringing down RO and not on promoting the 2016 initiative.

“In a meeting another activist asked [OTEP leadership], ‘What do you want us for? Is it to cause disruption to ensure this bill doesn’t pass or do you want us to help you get yours through?’ That stuck in my head,” Wolfinbarger said. “I am for the patients and when I saw the games OTEP was playing... I decided to start supporting RO. When it came down to it, at the end of the day, the patients were going to be able to get what they needed.”

She said she wasn’t the only patient who was opposed to RO’s language over the summer but ultimately supported it in the fall in interest of safe medical access. She says access to the extracted cannabis she needs is “virtually unheard of” in southwest Ohio, and if she could find it, it would be illegal, overpriced and she would have no way of knowing how it was made or if it was safe.

“Yeah, it was corporate greed, but at the end of the day the realism of this is it is America and it seems like we are in a time where our country is based off corporate greed. If at some time it didn’t occur to us that people were going to make money [on cannabis], then shame on us. That is just what happens,” she said

In August, all active PACs were required to submit their financial records to the secretary of state and it became public information that there was not yet funding behind OTEP, but it was technically in debt about $7,000. RO was becoming the most viable option for safe access for the state’s patients.

And then, like the Titanic on its maiden voyage had it purposefully turned full steam into the iceberg, the RO machine took a very strange turn. Despite branding the campaign “responsible” and saying the group had chosen the conservative and corporate path in order to secure victory on the ballot, James rolled out a bizarre new mascot for legalization; Buddie the marijuana superhero. Buddie had big foam muscles and wore a tight white leotard, a green cape and a coy smile. Buddie was part of the “Green Rush Tour” aimed at bringing out the millennial vote on college campuses. To add insult to injury, the superhero bud was male-gendered although all cannabis buds come exclusively from female plants, a fact not lost on the region’s growers, who would be shut out if the bill passed.

“We were very clear on the fact that Buddie had no gender. Buddie was spelled with an “ie” not a “y” so you can't assume Buddie is male because that would be a false assumption,” James said.

The RO campaign insisted the data their campaign generated and the polling done indicated Buddie was the right move. Instead, Buddie was immediately likened to Joe Camel by anti-drug groups, who have generally opposed legalization because they say it would bring about the same dangerous and predatory marketing to children as the tobacco industry did to hook its customers young.

“ResponsibleOhio has placed a lot of emphasis on the 21 and over piece of their amendment but then comes out with a mascot styled after a superhero? It’s a pretty shameless attempt to entice young people,” Jen Detwiler of Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies told Cleveland.com.

At each stop along Buddie’s tour, protestors were waiting. When Ericka Buford, the then-26-year-old single mother who had been hired to wear the Buddie suit had brought up her security concerns with the campaign, she was fired and replaced.

“I wasn’t treated fairly at all. They never gave me a reason behind letting me go,” Buford told MyDayton Daily News. “We had a meeting where I expressed some concerns, yes, but they informed me that everything would be okay and my job would still be intact and everything would be fine. The next thing I know I get a phone call and they informed me ‘We decided to go a different way.”

Buford had reason to be concerned. When the ORG had split earlier in the year and OTEP had come on the scene, “No to RO” was formed, but never became a united movement. OTEP co-founder Sri Kavuru focused his efforts on Issue 2, while some OTEP leaders and members stayed out of the opposition campaign altogether. Some of the loosely affiliated No to RO members became their own entity, Citizens Against Responsible Ohio (CARO), led by Aaron Weaver. Many former ORG members initially joined Weaver, but were later put off by his tactics.

CARO’s Weaver coordinated many of the protests that coincided with the Buddie tour. At each stop, Weaver wore his own superhero weed-man costume, Nuggie. Nuggie had red slit eyes, seeds speckled like acne across his face, an oversized bong and a sidekick: The Monopoly Man, a parody of the popular board game character. The Monopoly Man even handed out monopoly money with pig caricatures of James and Gould’s faces at stops on Buddie’s tour.

Nuggie and the Marijuana Monopoly Man
Nuggie and the Marijuana Monopoly Man

In early September, CARO released what they said was leaked audio from a conference call between Progress Ohio, a Columbus-based progressive advocacy non-profit, representatives of The Strategy Network and representatives of the RO campaign. The Strategy Network had contracted Progress Ohio to do “research” for the ResponsibleOhio campaign, but the tape tells another story. On the call were Sandy Theis, executive director of Progress Ohio, Antoinette Wilson of Triumph Communications and Strategy Network attorney Don McTigue. On the call they discussed the work of Brian Hester, who they referred to as their “Twitter ninja”, who managed a team of fake accounts to increase engagement with 18 to 24-year-olds while also fighting back against what Theis referred to as “pot anarchists”, or pro-marijuana RO-opponents.

Leaked emails from July 2014 show James discussing hiring Hester for “research” at a rate of $5,000 a month.

Weaver and others in No to RO responded with their own social media troll hives. Weaver went especially hard, however, not for RO but for the ORG’s then-president John Pardee, releasing leaked emails pointing towards the ORG making settlement deals with RO and making videos of him shooting targets and talking about how Pardee “sold out”. To Weaver, it was personal. In a posting on Medium.com, he revealed that much of his animosity stems from when he lived in California and was a roommate to Pardee’s son, Jason. Weaver trashed Jason Pardee’s grow, saying it was often infested with bugs. When the harassment got to be too much, the Pardees stepped back temporarily from activism.

Pardee maintains that endorsing RO was the right thing to do. He says after ORG members were critical of RO on social media in early 2015, the ORG was invited to talk to them about their differences and how they could support the bill. Pardee says the ORG negotiated in more patient-friendly regulations, such as home cultivation.

“Even though the bill was flawed, it was better than prohibition. Once we supported the ‘monopoly corporate empire’ folk, that’s when some of the activist community really turned on us a bit,” Pardee says.

CARO seized onto the ORG’s “sell out deal” and started pushing information out. Mary Jane Borden insists that the ORG never took a deal, and that the suggestion is absurd because a 501(c)3 cannot merge with a 501(c)4. Sources close to the RO campaign confirm no merge was ever attempted, but that a deal had been reached with the ORG for the endorsement.

“What I think we had to do was go into it and look back at our mission and purpose, who we are and what we are doing in this fight. We are here for the patients, that’s why we are here. When you look at it that way, you have RO on the ballot and it had a very nice medical program. Consider you are doing this work, at that time about 15 years, why would you vote no? Why do we vote against our own self-interest in this country?” Borden asked.

Borden describes the endorsement as “a beautiful thing.”

“We changed, they approached us and we got to know them. They are really nice people. I found that the real jerks were the people who opposed RO. The people who are with RO were then, are now, and continue to be pretty nice people… We did the 180, openly. We became spokespeople for them,” Borden says.

Borden isn’t convinced RO lost, and suggests there may have been election fraud. She says much of the opposition was cultural, and that people in northern Ohio, which is more urbanized, were less likely to be opposed. She says the Appalachian growers who opposed the initiative had been selfishly motivated in their opposition.

“You find that it’s not so clean cut in the business between the prohibitionists and the people who want to change laws. You know, there is an element of people who are making a shit ton of money off of this, off of marijuana, they don’t want it legal. They don’t. I think they have resources and I think they have been subversive themselves,” Borden said. “But in our particular case, there were people in our group who were so upset that we changed our minds and decided to back RO that they did everything they could to try to tank us.”

CARO splintered when Weaver’s attacks became extreme, a domestic abuse charge was discovered and conversations were uncovered online showing Weaver attacking others for their gender, skin color, sexual preferences and gender identities and occasionally crossing the line into death threats. Weaver has largely been absent from the reform community since.

When campaign finances were filed mid-year, the public learned that during the first six months of the campaign, RO spent $2 million, the bulk of which was paid directly to Ian James’s Strategy Network.

The Election

“I never cared who got rich when I was buying on the underground market, why do I care who is getting rich off the legal market? To me… the crime of legalization is that we are locking people up for possessing and using cannabis. So, anything that changes that, that keeps people from being locked up, I am fine with,” said Russ Belville, a well-known cannabis industry radio host and columnist for High Times Magazine. “I was kinda an outlier in the community because, again, I don’t care. As long as it’s legal we are good because the smell of weed is the excuse cops use to get into our business. If you make it legal that goes away. People growing on the sly in the past can do so better now, to me that’s a total win.”

As a series of legalization initiatives started hitting state ballots in recent years, starting with California’s failed Proposition 19 in 2010, Bellville has taken the stance that all legalization is good legalization because, in his view, incrementalism is not the enemy of perfection.

“If you get a chance to vote for legalization, then by God you vote for legalization,” Belville said.

After Prop 19, rifts began to form in the national industry and activist reform community that continue to complicate legislation efforts around the country. Belville has a set ideology in the matter, and although he wasn’t a fan of the grow language of RO, he supported it in his writing and on his radio shows, and flew out to Columbus on election night to cover the campaign live.

Belville described Ian James as “a guy who knows a lot about money, a little about politics, and nothing about weed.”

“I think we are in a phase now where we have investors and political types who see marijuana as the next big thing but don’t know a damn thing about the culture, the background, the history or the fact they are dealing with something that is not just a commodity, it’s a sacrament, a medicine, a political statement and it is bigger than [that],” Belville said.

He says when the election results rolled in that November, the victory party abruptly ended. Despite polling saying 90 percent of Ohioans were in favor of medical cannabis and 54 percent in favor of full legalization, ResponsibleOhio had lost. Only 36 percent of voters had supported it. Issue 2, however, did pass and became Ohio law.

“They were stunned they did so badly,” Belville said.

He said he was not personally surprised when it lost, he had seen this in other states before and felt RO had failed to understand the existing community and industry. He said that in his online and fan circles, the majority of his followers were strongly against it.

“Of all the troll wars and internet mudslinging I have dealt with in the [legalization] campaigns, at least these ones had the most legitimate gripes. From a principled stand against buying legislation, I understand what they were against.”

In the vacuum of ResponsibleOhio, OTEP prepared to work on their campaign for 2016, but was quickly eclipsed by the Marijuana Policy Project’s own ballot ambitions. In that period, internet trolling against Ohio activists ramped up and rumors flew not just around Ohio, but the whole country. In a few short months, MPP raised money, tensions and interests that were quickly dashed by Governor John Kasich, whose Republican led-legislature pushed their own bill into law while he was battling Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.

ResponsibleOhio succeeded in proving that legal marijuana was on Ohio’s horizon, but the devil is and always will be in the details.

Continued in Part Three.

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