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Ohio voters may face decision to allow medical uses for marijuana

Ohio voters could decide next year whether the state joins the growing trend of allowing the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

The Ohio Rights Group this week kicked off its drive to gather petitions for a constitutional amendment that would ask voters to create a medical marijuana program in Ohio. The Ohio Ballot Board certified the amendment’s language last week, a move that allows the group to begin collecting signatures.

The group, one of several pursuing a ballot issue, would need to gather 385,000 signatures from 44 Ohio counties by July 2014 to make it on the ballot the following November. It only obtained around 5,000 in its last attempt, group members said.

The Ohio Rights Group’s amendment would allow Ohioans 18 years and older (and possibly children, with written permission from a parent or guardian) with qualifying medical conditions to obtain and use marijuana. It would create the Ohio Cannabis Control Commission to set up the regulatory framework to decide who could buy, produce, distribute and sell marijuana within the state.

The amendment would also legalize the production of industrial hemp, a strain of cannabis that is low in Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that gives marijuana its psychoactive properties. Hemp is legal in other countries, including Canada, and hemp products, including foods, oils and fabrics, are widely available in the United States.

Nationwide, there has been a slow shift to adopt more legalization efforts. In all, medical marijuana is legal in 19 states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The closest state to Ohio that allows medical marijuana use is Michigan.

This year, legislators in Illinois and Maryland passed bills to legalize medical marijuana, although Illinois’ is still awaiting the governor’s signature. And last year, Washington state and Colorado became the only states to approve recreational marijuana use.

Nationwide, public sentiment about marijuana is changing to one of ambivalence, said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank. A study he released this month found people generally don’t consider it to be any more dangerous than alcohol, and 72 percent of Americans believe government efforts to enforce marijuana laws “cost more than they’re worth.” But 51 percent say they would feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone using it, he said.

Positions don’t fall down neatly along ideological lines, said E.J. Dionne, Jr., also of the Brookings Institution, who co-authored the study with Galston. That could be because Republicans are nearly as likely as Democrats to have reported past use, he said.

“It is very unlikely we will return to a time where there is strong opposition,” Dionne said.

Mark Caleb Smith, a political scientist at Cedarville University, said in an email he doesn’t think it’s likely Ohio voters, who lean conservative on social issues, would approve a medical marijuana amendment.

“At the same time, we are in a disruptive era…Religious and social conservatives are losing ground in our cultural conflicts, while cultural progressives appear ascendant. Perhaps we will see a continuation of this trend in Ohio,” Smith said.

Proponents say medical marijuana brings needed relief to people with conditions that cause chronic pain and nausea without serious side effects. They compare current laws to alcohol Prohibition of the 1920s.

Opponents question the medicinal value of marijuana, as well as the validity of the medical claims of those who use it.

Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, a Republican, said marijuana is difficult to regulate and is not accepted by the Food and Drug Administration for medical use.

He said patients would end up sharing — perhaps inadvertently — their marijuana with other people, similar to problems police see with legal painkillers.

“I’m totally against it. I just don’t see one good thing coming from this,” Plummer said.

But Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said American drug policy has failed, and that a new approach is needed.

“We need to be looking at the experience of other countries that have had some success with minimizing society harm by regulating and controlling (marijuana’s) use, and I think that’s the conversation that needs to be had,” he said.

He said the only association between marijuana and violent crime is activity involved in the distribution of it.

“The time and effort that we devote to marijuana control and enforcement just really takes away from the far more serious issue that we have, which is a heroin epidemic,” Biehl said.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but the federal government has indicated it won’t prosecute people who use and grow medical marijuana legally under state laws as long as they don’t transport the drug across state lines, said Karmen Hanson, a program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

To be successful at the ballot, the Ohio Rights Group needs an influx of cash, between $3 million and $5 million, said group secretary/treasurer Mary Jane Borden. The group’s predecessor, the Ohio Medical Cannabis Association, raised just less than $10,000 in 2011 and 2012 combined, according to state records.

Borden chalked up the group’s troubles in 2011 and 2012 to competing for the attention of voters, volunteers and donors amidst a presidential election.

Ohio Rights Group President John Pardee said the group is more optimistic this time around. He pointed to a March 2013 Columbus Dispatch poll that found 63 percent support for legalizing medical marijuana.

“We have 13 months … we will get it done,” Pardee said.

The group hopes medical marijuana will lead to full legalization, if voters warm to the idea, but the same Dispatch poll found Ohio voters oppose making pot fully legal by a 21-point margin.

Abby Smith of our Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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