Two things you probably haven’t been paying a lot of attention to lately:
Election Day in Ohio. (It’s not 2016 yet.)
Former boy-band star and reality TV spouse Nick Lachey. (It’s not 2003 anymore.)
Well settle in, because you have some catching up to do. On Tuesday, Ohio goes to the polls to decide if marijuana should be legal. If they vote yes, the Cincinnati native and long-ago leading man of “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica” will automatically become one of the top weed kingpins of the Buckeye State.
It is one of the most curious ballot initiatives in the country — a synergy of B-list celebrity and entrepreneurial democracy in a culturally conservative state that you would hardly expect to lead the charge for legal pot.
And yet it has driven a wedge into the usual pro-marijuana coalition, in part because of language in the measure that would restrict virtually all large-scale marijuana cultivation to 10 specifically designated farms.
The owners of those farms? A random bunch, including Lachey, designer Nanette Lepore, NBA legend Oscar Robertson, NFL journeyman Frostee Rucker, a pair of President William Howard Taft’s great-great-grandnephews and twenty-some others — who, not coincidentally, are the same folks bankrolling the campaign, and standing to become very, very wealthy if the measure passes.
“They are creating a constitutionally mandated oligopoly,” argues Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. But the initiative’s organizers maintain that the novel arrangement is the only way to fund a successful legalization campaign in a far-from-liberal state.
Each ownership group was asked to put up an initial $4 million to underwrite the ballot campaign; it will cost them an estimated $10 million more to buy land and get their farms up and running. Lachey’s piece of the action will be 29 acres just outside of Akron, which he would co-own with a couple of financial executives and a car dealership owner from Texas. Every one of the 1,100 state-regulated marijuana retail shops across Ohio will have no choice but to buy from his or one of the other nine farms.
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Within four years, according to one study, it is estimated that those 10 farms would be selling $1.1 billion worth of pot every year.
Lachey declined an interview, but his press representative shared this statement:
“Ohio is my home, and as a resident and local business owner I am proud to be part of a movement that has the potential to create jobs, reinvigorate the local economy and improve the safety of our communities. Passage of this proposal will result in much-needed economic development opportunities across Ohio, and update the state’s position on marijuana in a smart and safe way.”
Long before Jessica Simpson cemented his turn-of-the-millennium fame, Lachey grew up in Cincinnati, a football-loving dude whose parents shunted him and his brother Drew into music instead. At Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, the seeds for their careers were planted. They soon formed 98 Degrees, an R&B-tinged pop group with two other Ohio guys, and sold millions of CDs in the late ’90s — yet somehow still ended up an also-ran to Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync during the golden era of boy bands.
But Lachey, with his blue eyes and frosted tips, had a second act in him yet. His 2002 marriage to Simpson — herself a bit of a teen diva also-ran to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera – earned them their own reality show. On the surprise hit “Newlyweds,” he played the beleaguered good guy to his wife’s high-maintenance ditz, and suddenly both became tabloid royalty.
His music career never recovered, and the marriage didn’t last. But somehow the TV thing stuck, with hosting gigs on competition shows like “Clash of the Choirs” and “The Sing-Off” and a reality show he produced back at his old school in Ohio.
Even the sports bar he and Drew opened this year in Cincinnati’s hip Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was eventually revealed as the setting for a new A&E reality series, “Lachey’s Bar.”
Yelp reviewers may disagree on whether the brothers have any talent in running a restaurant, but there’s no doubt Nick Lachey, now 41, knows his brand. Transforming a music career that peaked long ago into a profitable TV afterlife takes savvy, and Lachey, or whoever is advising him, clearly has it.
It was his financial advisers who presented Lachey with the idea of getting into the marijuana game. According to ResponsibleOhio director Ian James, they heard about the opportunity through another client, Rucker, a defensive end for the Arizona Cardinals who used to play for the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.
Rucker, in turn, was recruited by James Gould, the Cincinnati sports agent and private-equity guy who masterminded this one-of-a-kind ballot initiative, after previous adventures helping Build-A-Bear go public and advising Donald Trump through his ill-fated involvement in the short-lived United States Football League.
Gould and James are responsible for transforming Ohio’s marijuana legalization movement from a grass-roots activists’ club to a “suit and tie” operation, funded by bottom-line-minded investors alert to the untapped economic potential of a particularly fragrant cash crop.
As one investor put it during a video pitch to other contributors reported by the Columbus Dispatch, “Let’s hop on this tsunami of money and ride the top of that wave to some enrichment for us.”
Though it is far from unusual for donors to subsidize campaigns they stand to benefit from, it is virtually unheard of for funders to write themselves into a state constitution via a ballot initiative.
“What’s unique about (this measure) is just how very explicit they are,” said Brittany Clingen, senior elections analyst for the nonprofit research group Ballotpedia. “This is a new level of pay-to-play democracy. The concept behind it is not unusual, but the implementation is unique.”
An aversion to monopolies has helped power opposition to the initiative, with Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies garnering support from the state Chamber of Commerce, Hospital Association, School Board Association, Farmers Union and Fraternal Order of Police.
“People are asking the question, how can somebody put themselves in the constitution exclusively to make money? That’s exactly what the proponents are trying to do,” said Curt Steiner, the group’s director.
James, head of ResponsibleOhio, focuses on the perceived benefits of legalization: economic growth, reduced demands on law enforcement, medicinal benefits, and so on. If voters find those things appealing, he said, they need to be realistic about what it takes to make legalization a reality.
“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 said. “Nobody.”
But it’s no longer as simple as saying “yes” or “no” to weed: In June, lawmakers threw a wrench into the debate by introducing another measure on the ballot — one asking voters if they want to prohibit anyone from using the state constitution to grant someone a monopoly.
What happens if Ohioans vote yes to banning monopolies and yes to marijuana legalization? No one seems to agree on that, but it could very likely happen. On Oct. 20, a poll showed 56 percent of voters plan to support prohibiting constitutionally granted monopolies. But on legalization, the game was tied: 46 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed, 8 percent undecided.
The very next day, ResponsibleOhio posted a new advertisement on YouTube.
“I’m Nick Lachey. Ohio is my home, and I care very deeply about the people here …”