Marijuana Initiative Investors Vow, ‘We’re Not Going Away’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Brian D. Kessler called it “a coin toss” Tuesday as he waited in Los Angeles for polls to close in Ohio. Instead, it wasn’t even close.

Kessler, a Boardman native who now makes his home in California, is one of 10 “disappointed” investors in what could have been a 27-acre marijuana farm in Alliance. But nearly two-thirds of Ohio voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have authorized 10 such farms, the backers called “grow sites,”  controlled by investors such as Kessler who bankrolled the campaign to legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational use.

Kessler is the founder of Maui Toys, which does business in this city’s River Bend industrial area. He sold Maui and two related businesses in 2012 for $36.2 million and formed SBL Venture Capital LLC. Among its investments are medicinal marijuana ventures in Connecticut and Nevada and most recently in the legalization effort led by ResponsibleOhio. Had the constitutional amendment been approved, Kessler hoped his business team would oversee the day-to-day operations at the 27-acre farm in Alliance that would have been controlled by Riviera Creek LLC.

Now, with the resounding defeat of Issue 3, he worries it won’t be as easy to put legalizing marijuana up for a vote anytime soon. And with the overwhelming approval of Issue 2, which prohibits the state constitution from creating business monopolies, Kessler wonders who will have the incentive to risk $30 million, as the marijuana farm investors did, to fund another ballot initiative.

“I’ll be interested in seeing where the playing field shakes out,” he says. “Was it that voters saw this is a bad mechanism, a bad structure, and said, ‘Let’s find a better way’? Or was there a lot of negative momentum and opponents used the monopoly argument to kill the initiative because they don’t want to address the problem?”

ResponsibleOhio, the advocacy group behind the initiative, posted a statement on its website Tuesday night vowing to return to the state’s ballot with a revised legalization plan. “We started the conversation, and we’re going to continue the conversation starting tomorrow,” according to the statement. “The status quo doesn’t work, it’s unacceptable and we’re not going away. All the things we’ve fought for are true. Ohioans still need treatment and deserve compassionate care. And our state needs the jobs and tax revenue that marijuana legalization will bring.”

Kessler says he, too, is not going way. His SBL Venture Capital LLC has put up $1 million to date in the Connecticut, Nevada and Ohio ventures, and has yet to “see any return on our cannabis investments.”

Still, next week he plans to attend the Marijuana Business Conference and Expo in Las Vegas, and his venture capital company is in the process of applying for a license in Maryland to grow, process and dispense medicinal marijuana. Next year, Kessler says he’ll be active in promoting ballot issues that would legalize recreational use in California and Nevada.

“I keep coming back to my problem,” he says. “My kids are going to get exposed to marijuana, and if they are buying it from drug dealers, it’s dangerous. That worries me.”

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.