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With Buddie as mascot, pot goes to the polls in Ohio

On Tuesday, Ohio could become largest state to fully legalize marijuana. But the ballot initiative stands out for another reason: It’s all about money.

Ohio on Tuesday could become largest and most politically diverse state to fully legalize marijuana. But the ballot initiative stands out for another reason: It’s all about money. 

Issue 3, as it's known, has been bankrolled by a baldly profit-driven coalition of investors, the owners of 10 aspiring pot farms that stand to make billions off reform. While it's nothing new for people to support political efforts that help their business interests, Issue 3 is exceptionally direct in the way it rewards investors. 

WATCH: Ohio to vote on recreational pot legalization

For a minimum $2 million contribution to the campaign, each of the 10 farms were guaranteed an exclusive, constitutionally-enshrined monopoly on marijuana production in the state if the initiative passes. To make matters stranger, the would-be tycoons who control these farms include 98 Degrees alum Nick Lachey, NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, and the family of former President William Taft.   

The result is a new playbook for reform and an odd scramble of traditional battle lines, with national drug reform groups hoping for victory but also cringing at the tactics used to achieve it. Some local marijuana fans are openly opposed to the effort, disgusted by its avarice. They've aligned with the national anti-legalization movement, which has long said that cannabis will become “Big Tobacco 2.0.”

Ohio’s initiative plays to stereotype, right down to the use of "Buddie," a roving marijuana mascot. With white tights, a green cape, and a mask that resembles a bud of marijuana, Buddie has been a magnet for goofball selfies and sharp-elbowed commentary. Critics say the character reminds them of Joe Camel, the cartoon character said to be created to pitch cigarettes to kids.   

“Ohio confirms our worst fears about big business marijuana. It’s all about making a small number of rich people richer, not personal freedom or justice.”'

“Ohio confirms our worst fears about big business marijuana,” said Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and former senior adviser to President Barack Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. “It’s all about making a small number of rich people richer, not personal freedom or justice.”

Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance, the two groups most responsible for successful legalization campaigns in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, both like the broader outline of the Ohio ballot initiative. It includes fairly standard provisions. Ohioans 21 and up would be allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana in general, and up to 8 ounces in their homes, where growing is also allowed.

But the creation of a marijuana monopoly is a deal-breaker for reformers too, who have declined to endorse the effort. “We are staying neutral on Ohio,” MPP communications manager Morgan Fox told MSNBC. “We generally support making marijuana legal for adults and regulating it like alcohol,” he continued, but “Ohioans will have to decide if Issue 3 is the best way for them to do so.”

Ethan Nadelmann, the thoughtful founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, is a mix of hope for success and harsh words for the details that may come with it. He thinks legalization would cut the number of people arrested for possession, create jobs, and boost the state budget. But he calls the monopoly provision, which is, technically speaking, an oligopoly, “profoundly problematic.”

“There's something about a constitutionally mandated oligopoly for an agricultural product that just seems un-American,” he said in a statement. “With that said, I must admit that I'm rooting for Issue 3 to win, mostly because a victory on Election Day 2015 would significantly accelerate the momentum toward ending marijuana prohibition nationwide.”

Nadelmann also believes that Ohio is a preview of the future of legalization, a view that – strangely enough – is shared by MPP, the opposition group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, and the Ohio organizers themselves. It’s a preview, the thinking goes, because after the usually left-leaning or independent states are done legalizing, a new model will be needed—one that replaces civil rights and personal liberties with corporate profit and personal wealth as an animating force.

James Gould, the CEO of a political consultancy called The Strategy Network, is the brains behind Issue 3, and he makes no excuses for his methods. In a video pitch to other contributors, one of his top investors said, "Let's hop on this tsunami of money and ride the top of that wave to some enrichment for us." But that’s precisely the attitude that’s needed, James says.

"People say, 'Why don't you just legalize marijuana and leave it up to the state to determine who gets licenses?' OK, but who pays for that? Who is actually going to put in the money needed to win that campaign? I know the answer," James told the Chicago Tribune recently. “Nobody.”

He may be right, especially given that his campaign cost at least $25 million, compared to a $3 million campaign in Colorado, the first state to legalize back in 2012. But will all that money—which has paid for a million door-to-door pitches, plus TV ads—actually translate to a victory? In the weeks running up to Tuesday, the polls were too close to call.