CLEVELAND — Long-time natives and carpetbaggers. Construction magnates, toy tycoons, an Olympian and an heir to the Jim Beam whiskey fortune.
These are some of investors vying to win approval to grow medical marijuana in Ohio. The state accepted 185 applications in June and now has to decide who gets the 24 cultivator licenses available.
Ohio’s medical marijuana law, passed last year, allows people with 21 medical conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer’s and epilepsy, to purchase and use marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The law doesn’t allow smoking.
Ohio has some of the country’s highest licensing fees. Small growers pay $2,000 to apply and $18,000 in licensing fees, while large growers pay $20,000 to apply and $180,000 in licensing. The applications will be scored out of 100 points based on their business plans, cultivation methods and past industry experience.
The estimated cost of opening a facility runs from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of millions. Yet that hasn’t deterred local business owners, minorities or investors from California to Pennsylvania from applying.
They find Ohio attractive because they believe it’s learned from the lessons of other states, from federal raids on Montana cultivators to harsh restrictions in Illinois that hampered patient access and curbed demand.
“They’re paying attention and adopting what works and improving what didn’t,” said Chris Lindsey, a legal analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project. “That puts Ohio really far, far ahead of the game compared to a lot of other states.”
With so much at stake, groups have scouted medical professors and hired seasoned consultants to boost their chances. Some declined to speak because they did not want to jeopardize their applications. Ohio hasn’t announced when licenses will be issued, but the program is due to be fully operational by September 2018.
A look at some of the players involved and their company names:
Brian and Daniel Kessler — Riviera Creek Holdings
Brian Kessler, whose father patented an early version of the hula hoop, made his fortune running a toy company until he shifted to investing in marijuana. He and his nephew, Daniel, both Youngstown natives, say they want to avoid what they call the “Taj Mahal” syndrome — building too quickly. They say they want to start small and monitor patient numbers before expanding production.
They plan to grow their marijuana using a closed-circuit hydroponics system they say minimizes the chance for infestation.
The Kesslers say they’re determined to bring jobs to Youngstown and hope their local roots will give them a boost in the competition for a license.
Ian James, Bill Brisben, Jim Gould, Oscar Robertson — CannAscend
James is back after spearheading a failed 2015 ballot measure put before Ohioans to legalize marijuana. He’s joined by Jim Gould, a former business partner of President Donald Trump, and Bill Brisben, a Cincinnati real estate developer and former UNICEF representative. Together, they plan to invest about $30 million in a site outside of Cincinnati.
Nick Lachey, former frontman for boy band 98 Degrees, had backed James’ 2015 initiative but is no longer involved. But former basketball player and Olympian Oscar Robertson is still an investor. Known as “The Big O,” Robertson is known as one of the greatest NBA players of all time.
Dana Smoot — Under the Water Tower
Smoot is the legal counsel for Smoot Construction, a prominent Columbus-based, African-American-owned construction company that has worked on projects at Ohio State and the recently opened African American Museum of History in Washington. Smoot did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Ohio’s marijuana program stipulates that 15 percent of licenses must go to a minority-owned group — black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American. Legal experts have questioned whether the quota would stand in court, though no legal challenge has been filed to date.
OUT OF TOWN INVESTORS
Ben Kovler — Green Thumb Industries Ohio
Kovler is a Chicago investment banker whose grandfather, Everett Kovler, was president of the Jim Beam whiskey company in the 1970s. Kovler started in marijuana three years ago by founding Green Thumb Industries, which is headquartered in Illinois and now operates in six states.
He says he plans to invest about $10 million if selected. His facility will grow 20 to 50 strains of marijuana to make oils, pills and slow-release patches that will help patients fall asleep at night.
Chad Oberson — Oberson’s Nursery and Landscapes
Oberson runs a plant nursery and landscaping company in Fairfield. Oberson is also a Fairfield councilman, elected to a non-partisan position, and voted in April for a local ban on medical marijuana which passed unanimously. He declined comment.