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Why Ohio's rejection of pot measure could be a boon for legalization

Pot failed at the polls Tuesday in Ohio but it might still be a boon for legalization.

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Pot failed at the polls Tuesday in Ohio but it might still be a boon for legalization, a setback that nonetheless helps the movement avoid charges of greed, corruption and the rise of "big pot".

The loss feels like a win in disguise because of the baldly profit-driven nature of the ballot initiative, known as Issue 3. It would have allowed adults 21 and over to buy and consume cannabis products, creating an alcohol-style market much like what exists in the four states that have already enacted reforms. 

But it also would have created a billion-dollar monopoly for just 10 pot farms, the beneficiaries of an exclusive, unending and constitutionally enshrined right to grow all the bud in the Buckeye State. And these 10 farms weren’t selected by quality or lottery: They simply bought their way in, funding the $25 million dollar legalization campaign. 

RELATED: Big names back marijuana legislation in Ohio

Ohioans weren’t too high on it either. Issue 3 went down in a landslide, falling 65% to 35%, and losing in all 88 counties. Voters even passed a second ballot initiative, known as Issue 2, which specifically prevents future deep-pocketed constituents from trying to amend the state constitution for their own gain. 

The result is a personal loss for some notable investors, including former boy-band heart-throb Nick Lachey, NBA hall of famer Oscar Robertson and some extended family members of former President William Taft. Each owned a piece of a would-be pot farm, which meant a minimum $2 million contribution to the campaign. 

But the loss is also a broader turning point for national reforms. If it had succeeded, Issue 3 would have been a new playbook for reform, a sub-movement animated more by profit and wealth than civil rights or personal liberties. Because it lost, Issue 3 clears the way for national drug reform groups—which had declined to endorse the initiative—to talk up tax revenue and social justice as they lobby for legalization in 2016. 

“I don’t see the defeat of Issue 3 slowing the national momentum for ending marijuana prohibition” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Voters, including those who would like to see marijuana legally regulated and taxed, were clearly turned off by the oligopoly provision.” 

“The people of Ohio have understandably rejected a deeply flawed, monopolistic approach to marijuana reform that failed to garner broad support from advocates or industry leaders,” added Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a national trade group. “Now the foundation has been laid for a potential 2016 effort that would put forward a more common-sense initiative.” 

Another reason the reform movement is happy about Tuesday's result: Issue 3 was a political and public relations disaster for supporters of legalization. The anti-legalization movement has long said that cannabis will become “big tobacco 2.0,” a vice industry dependent on converting kids and creating heavy users. And Ohio’s initiative played 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 was a magnet for goofball selfies but also lacerating commentary. Critics said the character was a proto-Joe Camel, the idol of cartoon cool, allegedly created to introduce smoking to children. Even major supporters of marijuana reform rushed to denounce Buddie and his backers. 

That takes some of the sting out of the opposition’s own celebratory words on Tuesday. 

“We are elated and ecstatic about the wide margin of victory that we received tonight,” said Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. “I cannot overstate the importance of this victory. It shows that when we make this about money—and not so much about marijuana—we win.”

The marijuana legalization movement remains vulnerable to such claims, and while it might not be a corporate nightmare so far, it is an awkwardly white and rich industry. In an interview with the Drug Policy Alliance last year, Michelle Alexander, the best-selling author of “The New Jim Crow,” pointed out that the war on drugs had perpetuated racial segregation—but that legalization has yet to offer a cure. 

“After 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time selling weed and their families and futures destroyed, now white men are planning to get rich in doing precisely the same thing,” she said.

The industry itself acknowledges that it has a problem with class and color. “There are a host of reasons why the industry is not as racially diverse as it could be,” Taylor West of the National Cannabis Industry Association, told MSNBC. There are huge licensing fees, legal fees and taxes. Every legal weed state also has laws preventing people with a past drug conviction from working in the field. 

It’s almost as if the existing models for legalization are designed, consciously or not, to exclude the little folks who might hope to start a pot business or work in a pot shop. Ohio’s initiative would have added to this unsavory impression. That’s why its failure may actually help the movement succeed.