Marijuana backers seek reforms in Ohio

Marissa Medansky, Associated Press

Rob Ryan isn’t shy about the medicine he said has helped him tremendously — even though it’s illegal.

After a cancer diagnosis about 10 years ago, Mr. Ryan, now 60, began a regimen of the usual suspects. Chemotherapy and pills led to pain and weight loss. Then he added marijuana to the mix. He said the improvements were undeniable.

At that moment, he realized the earlier things he’??d heard about the banned drugs’ ill effects simply were not true.

“The government has a problem,” Mr. Ryan said of American drug policy. “It’s caught in a lie and it’?s getting exposed daily.”

Today, Mr. Ryan of Cincinnati is among the state’??s most public advocates for legalizing marijuana, medical and otherwise. Last fall, he was elected president of Ohio NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The group’s aim is “to move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults,” according to the national group’??s Web site.

That vision, once hazy, is now almost reality in parts of the country. In Colorado and Washington state, marijuana is legal, and 21 additional states (plus Washington, D.C.) permit medical use. The expanding list includes neighboring Michigan and as of two weeks ago, New York.

As laws shift nationwide, many wonder if Ohio will become the next state to “go green.” According to a February Quinnipiac poll, 87 percent of Ohioans support doctor-prescribed medical marijuana, while 51 percent also support legalizing recreational use.

But statistics alone can’??t change laws. Which means that parades, festivals, even zoos have become peppered with pro-pot petitioners for two potential ballot initiatives — one that could ease marijuana law in Toledo, the other statewide.

Both efforts have uncertain futures. But Mr. Ryan is confident that legal marijuana is ultimately inevitable — a question of how and when, not if.

“You’ve just got to deal with it and take control of it,” he said.

Local battleground

No one in the city of Toledo can light up legally. That’??s the law, plain and simple.

In Ohio, small-scale marijuana possession is a minor misdemeanor. Anything less than 100 grams, about as much as three or four sandwich bags of the stuff, carries a $150 fine but won’t go on your record — like a parking ticket. Larger amounts, however, still mean possible jail time and fines up to $15,000.

A group of activists wants to change that. So they’ve drafted the Sensible Marihuana Ordinance, which would loosen municipal drug law if placed on the November ballot and approved by a majority of Toledo voters.

(Its anachronistic spelling comes from current Toledo law, said Sean Nestor, 29, a former Toledo City Council candidate who’s involved with promoting the cause.)

The ordinance would lessen marijuana possession penalties as much as the law allows. That means any charge that’s currently a misdemeanor, minor or not, would be treated like a minor infraction. And any case of felony possession — from 300 grams to 3,000 — would be treated like a fifth-degree felony, the least severe felony offense.

According to supporters, the ordinance would improve public safety and shield nonviolent offenders from unfair punishment. Police could focus on crimes more severe than simple possession, Mr. Nestor said.

The northwest Ohio chapter of NORML is largely behind the ordinance. Founded just 15 months ago, the group has since grown from a motley foursome to about 30 regular members, said Mary Smith, its president.

The idea for the petition was born in October, she said, when one member suggested citywide legalization as a kind of joke. Everyone laughed, but then the light bulbs flickered. By January, members were consulting with attorneys to learn more about their options, and the idea for the ordinance was soon born.

Supporters said the plan is possible because of a concept in the state constitution called “home rule.” The principle allows municipalities to determine city-specific rules for certain internal matters, such as regulating local streets and setting salaries for elected officials.

It’?s been applied to drug law before. Supporters cite an ordinance in Medina, Ohio, that raised city marijuana penalties, the Toledo proposal in reverse. The law worked its way through the courts and was ultimately upheld in 2004 by Ohio’s 9th District Court of Appeals.

For now, supporters of the ordinance remain optimistic. They’ve gathered the 6,000 signatures needed to make the ballot and maintain that the ordinance is legal and can be enforced.

The most common objections have been concerns about intoxicated driving and promoting use among youths, petitioners said. But they emphasized that public reaction has been largely positive.

“People just come up and hug me for this,” said volunteer Amy Zacharias.

Ms. Zacharias, 42, has bought stock in medical marijuana companies and believes the entire state could benefit from some kind of legal industry.

“If Ohio’s laws open up, we’d love to treat it like basil,” Ms. Zacharias said, gathering signatures on a hot afternoon. “Bring that money here!”

Medical movement

As activists in Toledo attempt to relax marijuana law across the board, a Columbus-based nonprofit has focused its efforts on medical use. The Ohio Rights Group is petitioning for a state ballot initiative that, if passed, would legalize medical marijuana via constitutional amendment.

The Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment would affect patients with more than 30 conditions, from cancer to severe chronic pain. It also would later set regulations governing the production of industrial hemp and establish a nine-member “Commission of Cannabis Control” for oversight.

The project is close to home for John Pardee, 53, the group’?s president. The Amherst, Ohio, man became interested in the issue when his son, now a “medical refugee” in California, became a marijuana patient following a car accident.

Mr. Pardee said his story is not unique; a “lot of people” have fled Ohio for medical marijuana. Some families have even drawn national media attention for their moves, which often involve young children in serious condition.

“When I can see those kids come home and give me a big hug, that’s why I’m involved,” said Kevin Spitler of Allegan, Mich., an Ohio Rights Group board member who left Toledo for medical marijuana.


The anecdotes are powerful. But even medical cannabis could bring unintended consequences to the state, said Marcie Seidel, the executive director of the Ohio Drug-Free Action Alliance.

“Whenever you make something legal or more accessible, or people perceive it to be a more benign substance, then the use of it goes up,” she said. Youth use especially could skyrocket.

Ms. Seidel said additional research is needed to see if marijuana even has medical value. While synthetic forms are available, the drug “in its raw form” has not yet received approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

But FDA approval is complicated because marijuana is a “Schedule I” drug under federal law, said Kris Hermes, media specialist at the pro-medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access. The government defines Schedule I drugs as substances “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” a categorization Americans for Safe Access believes is inaccurate and has unnecessarily prevented researchers from studying marijuana and developing products.

The information is so limited that achieving medical consensus is difficult, said a pediatric epilepsy specialist, Dr. Anup Patel of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, who has written about medical marijuana in the past. Though he said existing data look promising, future studies are necessary to add clarity to the discussion.

In the meantime, the Ohio Rights Group is still working to meet its signature count: 385,000 names. They likely won’?t meet that benchmark, according to a statement Mr. Pardee posted on Thursday to the Ohio Rights Group Facebook page.

“We are not at the point we would need to be at to put this issue before the people of Ohio in this election year,” he wrote.

But the signatures collected so far will roll over to the next election cycle, and Mr. Pardee’s statement made clear that the group hopes to continue in some way.

“We will not rest until all of our goals have been achieved,” Mr. Pardee wrote.

Beyond the ballot

Mr. Ryan, the Ohio NORML president, said petitioning efforts can be “difficult and onerous” because of high costs and a need for time and manpower. Although his group has supported the Sensible Marihuana Ordinance and the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment, it mainly has focused on smaller causes, like changing paraphernalia laws and promoting public awareness.

Perhaps bigger changes are better suited to the legislature. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would do well to cooperate, Mr. Ryan said, noting that marijuana is “not a partisan kind of issue.”

Members of the Ohio Rights Group, faced with dim prospects for November, will likely try that tactic. The group is considering approaching legislators with a proposal for reform, according to Mr. Pardee’??s Facebook message from last week.

As they plot the future, supporters of the Sensible Marihuana Ordinance are also looking ahead. Right now, they’?re hoping to boost their signature count before the August deadline in case some of the names are declared invalid. Then comes the “second phase,” as Mr. Nestor called it.

“We need to transition very quickly from having the signatures and signature-gathering to get out the vote,” he said.

For supporters, the urgency of their efforts extends beyond the city. They maintain success in Toledo could inspire activists in other areas to propose similar laws. They hope that could tip the scales of the entire state, bringing marijuana to Ohio ordinance by ordinance.

“Doing it locally, and doing it locally across the state is far more effective,” said Ms. Smith, the northwest Ohio NORML president.