Healthy Hits

Statewide group asks Ohio voters to legalize medical marijuana and industrial hemp


hile two states have successfully legalized marijuana, Ohio is beginning to move forward with ballot initiatives that could legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes and to produce industrial hemp.

The effort, which is being pushed by the Ohio Rights Group, a medical marijuana advocacy organization, could be on the ballot as soon as November 2013 if the group gets strong financial backing, but Mary Jane Borden, secretary and treasurer of the group, says 2014 is more realistic.

If it’s successful, the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment will legalize medical marijuana and create the Ohio Commission of Cannabis Control, whose nine members would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Ohio Senate, to deem who’s eligible to grow, process, distribute, transport, purchase or sell cannabis for medical purposes. The amendment will also allow Ohio residents to produce and sell hemp, a non-psychoactive form of cannabis that can be used for paper, fuel, food, building materials and clothing, among other uses.

That would mean significant changes for Ohio, a state in which marijuana remains illegal, although getting caught with less than 100 grams does not go on someone’s criminal record as long as it’s not intended for distribution.

Most recently, the Ohio Rights Group turned in 2,058 petition signatures — more than double the 1,000 required — in support of the amendment to Attorney General Mike DeWine’s offices, which will now begin reviewing the ballot language to ensure it meets the legal criteria to go on the ballot. Afterward, the proposed amendment will work its way to the Ohio Ballot Board. If it’s approved there, the Ohio Rights Group will be able to begin the process of gathering 385,000 signatures from Ohio voters required to put the issue on the ballot.

Borden explains this is the third time the group has pushed the ballot initiative. The first time, in 2011, the ballot language was too long and wasn’t approved. The second time, in 2012, Chase Bank closed the group’s checking account, effectively shutting down the campaign, because the bank did not want to “do business with entities engaged in illegal activity,” even though the Ohio Rights Group’s activity was approved by state officials, according to Borden.

This time, Borden says the group is prepared to take the issue all the way to the ballot box.

“The time has come,” she says. “This is an issue that is gaining incredible momentum statewide and nationwide.”

Not everyone is on board. The Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati says it opposes the ballot initiative. The group argues it should be up to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to decide whether marijuana should be used for medical purposes, not voters.

“We believe that it should go through the FDA process just like any other medicine would to determine dosage, effective levels, side effects and drug interactions,” says Mary Haag, president of the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati.

Haag points to Marinol, a legal prescription drug that uses components of marijuana to treat nausea, low appetite, anorexia and vomiting, as an example of a marijuana-based drug working through the FDA process.

Alongside the statewide Drug Free Action Alliance, Haag’s organization has also raised concerns about the Ohio Rights Group’s ballot language regarding age limits, the amount of marijuana a person may possess and whether employers will be able to properly deal with workers who are impaired because of medical marijuana, among other complaints.

So far, polls show support for medical marijuana legalization among Ohio voters. A Saperstein Associates poll conducted for The Columbus Dispatch in March found 63 percent of more than 1,000 Ohioans favor legalizing medical marijuana, with 35 percent against. That contrasted with full marijuana legalization, which was opposed 59-37.

For Ohio, that support could have substantial medical and economic benefits at a time when the state is considering the impacts of broader policies in both areas.

Medical benefits

Angelica Warren, a 24-year-old Columbus resident who was diagnosed with brain cancer and epilepsy, says medicating with marijuana has helped her get through both conditions during the past four years, even though the drug is still illegal in Ohio.

When Warren was diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of an apple in 2008, doctors told her that they weren’t sure she would make it through the night, and there was less than a 2 percent chance that she would come out of surgery without major brain damage. But doctors managed to remove most of the tumor without major complications, and Warren began further treatments after that.

To cope with the treatment, Warren was prescribed morphine and other painkillers. 

“When (my oncologist) told me about the addiction for them … I thought, ‘Am I addicted to these? I take them every day.’ That scared me,” she says. “I realized how out of it they made me.”

Warren was also struggling with nausea as a result of her cancer treatment, and she says her anti-nausea medicine was spotty at best. The nausea killed Warren’s appetite, and she ended up losing 90 pounds in three months. Fearing for her daughter’s life, Warren’s mom, who’s a nurse, suggested marijuana.

“My mother told me she thought I was going to die just from being malnourished,” Warren says. “She contacted somebody to get medical marijuana for me.”

Marijuana effectively solved both problems. It boosted Warren’s appetite, and it tamed her pain — all through relatively small doses.

“Of course, some people use a lot of it,” she says. “I only use a small amount until it makes me feel better.”

Marijuana had another surprising effect for Warren: After her surgery, Warren began experiencing seizures, a result of epilepsy. She was originally taking anti-seizure medicine, which she says could have caused liver and kidney problems down the line. Since she began using marijuana, she has been able to stop using her anti-seizure medicine without complications.

“Without medical marijuana, I wouldn’t be alive today,” she says. “It really has changed my life for the better.”

The medical properties of marijuana are notoriously difficult to study because federal law makes it so difficult for researchers to get legal supplies, but the limited research in the area supports Warren’s anecdotal evidence.

In 2007, a study published in Neurology concluded smoking marijuana on a daily basis reduced chronic pain in HIV-positive patients by 34 percent, with no serious adverse effects reported.

In 2010, a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found smoking marijuana three times a day for five days “reduced the intensity of pain, improved sleep and was well tolerated.” But the study recommended further safety and efficacy research to validate its findings.

Toking up the economy

Experiences and research in other states have indicated that medical marijuana could also boost the economy — most obviously by encouraging opportunistic entrepreneurs to open up medical marijuana dispensaries.

A study from Arizona State University researchers found medical marijuana legalization will create 1,500 jobs in Arizona, which legalized the plant for medical use in 2010. Arizona’s population is about half that of Ohio. 

The study has been backed up by multiple states’ experiences. Dispensaries have popped up in the District of Columbia and 18 states that have legalized medical marijuana, leading to thousands of jobs and hundreds of new businesses.

The Ohio Rights Group’s amendment would also legalize industrial hemp, which Borden says would help grow Ohio’s economy.

“The economic benefits to Ohio are staggering,” she says, citing the numerous paper, food and clothing products that could be made with hemp. “It’s got to be billions and billions of dollars, and they should be right here in Ohio.”

Borden says Ohio’s location, agricultural roots and manufacturing background position it to capture a bulk of the national and international hemp trade.

“The great freeways of the United States all pass through Ohio,” she says. “It’s only six hours to seven or eight hours to Chicago, D.C. and New York. If you just draw a circumference around Ohio, you can see how the distribution networks are already there, designed and set up to move products from Ohio nationwide.”

State vs. federal

While the Ohio Rights Group’s amendment is one of the most promising approaches for medical marijuana advocates so far, it’s not the only one. The Ohio Alternative Treatment Amendment could also be on the ballot in 2013, although the group involved needs additional funding for a campaign.

This month, Rep. Robert Hagan, a Youngstown Democrat, proposed a bill that would put medical marijuana on the ballot this year, but the bill needs three-fifths approval from the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature to succeed.

But if medical marijuana is legalized in Ohio, there is one remaining obstacle that could pull back any changes: the federal government. Legalization at a state level would not be enough to overrule federal law — a reality that some states have been repeatedly reminded of after adopting legalization. President Barack Obama’s U.S. Department of Justice has been cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries in California in particular, closing down hundreds of businesses and costing the state thousands of jobs since 2011. 

With jobs and the health of some Ohioans at stake, advocacy groups are pushing forward to at least get the state government on their side. If the state attorney general approves the Ohio Rights Group’s ballot language, the group will then have to gather 385,000 petition signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The Ohio Rights Group is optimistic about its prospects, but whether it can take advantage of Ohio’s support for medical marijuana and gather enough signatures remains to be seen. ©

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