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Buzz Killers 

Two groups want to legalize pot in Ohio. So why aren’t they talking to each other?

For once I feel kind of normal," Chris Amberger says today.

He was an eager 17 when he joined the National Guard in 2002; his first tour of Iraq started early in 2005. Within five months he saw one of his leaders burn to death when his humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. Two months later, it was Amberger's turn.

"It was a suicide car bomber. I was 45 feet away," he recalls.

It took military doctors a year and a half to piece Amberger back together. But his newly fractured mind lagged behind.

"I realized it the day after I got blown up," he says, recalling his first memories of a German hospital. "I was having flashbacks, recurring nightmares. I'd be sleeping and I'd see a van, and it would evaporate into a fireball. I'd wake up clutching my chest and would be hardly able to breathe." The moment he recovered, he was shipped off to Afghanistan, then one final tour of Iraq.

Now 26, he's been out of the military for three months and back to a regular IT job in Columbus. But his post-traumatic stress remains, and the flashbacks and angst that have followed him through it all are joined by new problems. He has trouble concentrating and angers easily. He steers clear of situations he has learned trigger flashbacks.

Amberger has not seen a doctor since returning, but he's found his own help for the horrors that envelop him.

"Once I was home, next thing I knew, I started smoking, and then, when I was in a difficult situation I didn't get upset or irrational," he says. "It helps me pay attention at work, and I can sleep."

Amberger was never a stoner and he isn't one now. He says a little weed every other night just before bed quiets the racket of the war that his brain persists in firing at him. But buying illegal weed makes him nervous. "There's no reliable or safe access to it. Everybody seems a bit shady," he says. "And serving as long as I did with a spotless record, I have a lot to lose."

For a snippet of time in 1996, there was an Ohio statute that could have helped people like Amberger. The "medical defense" law prohibited prosecution of anyone who could show a doctor's recommendation for using otherwise-illegal weed. It also made Ohio second only to California in attempts to legalize the drug. But the state's progressivism was short-lived; a more conservative legislature overturned the law within six months.

Since then, marijuana has been substantially decriminalized here. Nowadays, having less than 100 grams (roughly three and a half ounces) will get you a ticket and a fourth-degree misdemeanor. But that's still not enough to the myriad groups pushing for legal medical marijuana. For eight years, they have tried to get an Ohio law passed that would completely legalize — but regulate — medical pot here.

"It would be a huge relief," says Amberger.

Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia have beaten Ohio to the punch. Ohio lawmakers have made various attempts over the years, failing each time to dislodge the issue from committee rooms.

A recent study by the nonpartisan group Pew Research revealed that 72 percent of Ohioans favor legalizing medical marijuana. In the wake of that report, pro-pot groups frustrated by statehouse smoke and mirrors plan to take it to voters on the November 2012 ballot. In order to do so, they must get the ball rolling now.

But the world of pot legalization in Ohio is marked by gray areas and hazy relationships: The president of one group may be the treasurer of another. They all seem to know each other, and they claim to be friends. But these days, two factions have emerged, each with drastically different proposals for voters. And the two sides aren't talking to one another.

Whatever is being smoked hasn't mellowed what appears to be a race for millions in campaign funding and a jolt of personal prestige. But with the groups continuing down differing paths, some worry that they could snuff out their own efforts.

GIVE PEACE A CHANCE

"It's a shame," Cher Neufer says between drags from a smoke — the regular kind — in the black-lit back room of a storefront on Lodi's town square. The rural Medina County hamlet serves as HQ for the Ohio Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Both sides could have sat down, debated, and come up with what would be the best ballot initiative."

As one of the country's oldest organizations advocating marijuana legalization (founded in 1970), the group requires state chapters to support every state or local effort to lighten up pot laws. And there are two in the works here: one that's more lenient and favors state control, another that's more restrictive but leaves enforcement in the hands of local government.

The standoff stems at least in part from the fact that neither group even knew the other existed at the time their plans came together; by the time they found out, so much work had been poured into each initiative that it may have be-en too late to join forces.

And Neufer is stuck in the middle.

True to the NORML mission, the 64-year-old retired programmer/analyst is preparing boxes of NORML T-shirts and bumper stickers to take to the Mid-West Reggae Fest at Nelson Ledges. Lovingly referred to by many as "Marijuana Fest," it's a sure bet to drum up support for the Ohio Alternative Treatment Amendment, the lone initiative to seek NORML's help.

In March, before she knew the Alternative Treatment group existed, Neufer was invited to meet with backers of what is now the competing ballot initiative: the Ohio Medical Cannabis Act of 2012.

"They were very secretive," she says. "They wouldn't allow me to bring anyone with me, and they wouldn't let me read their petition. How can I endorse something they won't let me see?"

Since then, her e-mails and calls to Cannabis Act backers have gone unanswered.

It is rumored that the Cannabis Acters may already be getting money from the deep-pocketed national Marijuana Policy Project or "maybe even Peter Lewis," Neufer says, referring to Northeast Ohio's own Progressive Insurance CEO, known for advocating marijuana legalization — especially with his checkbook. She knows the Treatment camp has no funding yet, but once an initiative has been approved at the state level, well-placed endorsements like Willie Nelson's have a way of coming through.

As a first step toward getting on the ballot, each group must produce 1,000 signatures that can be validated by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Unlike its counterpart, the Treatment group makes it easy for Neufer and anyone else wishing to collect signatures for the cause: Its petitions are available for download on the group's website. But this move also may have led to the failure of its first attempt to woo DeWine this summer. Of 2,143 signatures submitted, only 534 were deemed valid.

"It wasn't because the signatures were not from registered Ohio voters," Treatment spokesman Ryan Maitland told Scene at the time. The problem was that petitioners collecting signatures did not correctly record the number of signatures gathered on the petition sheets.

On August 9, Scene reported that the attorney general had rejected the Treatment Amendment drive and, in Scene-like fashion, made reference to "Cheetos-stained" petition pages. Maitland called the munchies humor inappropriate and did not return calls and e-mails for this story.

Neufer says Maitland also attempted to dissuade NORML from talking to Scene. Neufer, likewise, tried to convince Maitland to resume communication. Neither effort went over particularly well.

A week's worth of calls, e-mails, and Facebook messages to others affiliated with the Treatment Amendment — including high-profile medical marijuana activist Tonya Davis from Dayton and Ohio Patient Network President John Precup — were not returned. Just prior to press time, Maitland agreed via voicemail to talk to Scene.

Nonetheless, Neufer, who is also secretary of the medical-pot-friendly Ohio Patient Network, confirms the group was gathering signatures for its second petition attempt and says they could be submitted to DeWine's office as early as this week.

Meanwhile, the Cannabis camp is gathering signatures of its own, with hopes that using only trained petitioners will head off any snafus.

"We are professionals," says spokeswoman Theresa Daniello, her voice ever-so-slightly suggesting that a certain other group is not.

But she is mum on many points. "This is a business," Daniello says, noting that the group operates under the guidance of a very experienced local CEO and plans to appoint a doctor to its board. But she will not name them. "We are still putting the puzzle pieces together," she offers.

And that is evident in her changing position on NORML's involvement with the Cannabis Act. During an initial interview, Daniello said, "If we have any ties to NORML at all, they were very loose ties for a short time." These days, she says she welcomes NORML's endorsement.

Daniello admits she has many friends who back the opposing legislation, but "the majority of people working with our political action committee are new, and we have nothing to do with any of that, and we don't want anything to do with it."

As for funding, she insists there has been no money from Peter Lewis, though she does hold out hope for celebrity endorsements that may bring in the $10 to $15 million she estimates a successful campaign will need.

If neither group is vying for funding yet, what exactly is the cause of the conflict? "There's a lot of prestige involved in being the first to get something through," says Daniello.

So, to recap: The Treatment group is speaking to NORML but not to the Cannabis Act; it wasn't speaking to Scene but is now. NORML is speaking to the Treatment group and Scene, and wishes the Cannabis Act would speak to them. The Cannabis Act is speaking to Scene but not the Treatment group, and says it would like to speak to NORML but isn't. It's all very simple really.

WHAT'S THE

DIFFERENCE?

Backers of both groups insist that they are against full legalization of marijuana. But observers see medical legalization here as an important stepping stone to pot eventually becoming legal as liquor. NORML, for example, operates nationally on three different platforms: full legalization, medical legalization, and legalization of industrial hemp production.

"We do what is best for the particular state, and in Ohio, medical legalization is best for the state," Neufer explains.

Also, every state that puts its own rules on the books sends a rallying cry to the feds to get out of the ganja game. Federal laws trump more lenient local ones, but as each state falls to pressure from pro-pot constituents, federal laws become more difficult and costly to enforce.

As evidence the strategy is working, proponents of legalization point to five separate bills currently bumping around congressional hallways; they would forbid the IRS from prosecuting taxpayers with medical marijuana income and allow lenders to finance medical marijuana businesses in other states. One would outlaw Uncle Sam from meddling in states' marijuana decisions altogether.

"There aren't going to be hearings on them any time soon, but they are important place holders — keeping the issues in front of voters," says Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.

"It will be very difficult for the federal government to enforce its own marijuana laws if over half the states have deregulated it or if more than half the population supports deregulation," he says. Ohio could be state No. 17. "We think we will have half the population before we have half the states," adds Fox, who hails from Olmsted Falls and is a graduate of Case Western Reserve University.

To that end, it doesn't matter which initiative winds up before Ohio voters, says Fox. "But with the political climate in Ohio, it's more likely that the voters would approve the more restrictive measure."

The more restrictive Treatment Amendment mimics medical marijuana laws passed in other states and is similar to the bills that have failed to clear the Ohio legislature for the past eight years. Patients with a diagnosis from an approved list of ailments, a doctor's written recommendation, and who register with the Ohio Department of Health could possess 3.5 ounces of pot and grow 12 plants for personal use without worrying about the misdemeanor charge that now hangs over their heads. Registered cultivators could grow and dispense enough MJ for eight patients.

Local zoning boards could prohibit the commercial sale of pot to patients within their municipal limits and could also forbid patients from growing weed in their own homes.

But to many, the most disconcerting provisions in the Treatment Amendment are that state and local lawmakers could pile whatever taxes or fees they see fit on the sale and cultivation of medical marijuana — and that local police departments would be responsible for enforcing the local laws.

Local control like this has caused problems elsewhere. In Colorado, thousands of local ordinances can be put on the books each year as individual cities initiate or change various restrictions. In Oakland, California, the cost of a license to cultivate medical marijuana has skyrocketed to more than $200,000, putting such businesses out of reach for individuals and non-profit groups.

"In some cases it's been a city just trying to make as much money as possible, but in some cases [high taxes or fees] are to keep away too many customers and dispensaries," says Fox. "They know only those serious about it will pay."

In Michigan, which legalized medical marijuana just two years ago, things are reportedly a mess. "The main trouble is that law enforcement in Michigan, by and large, doesn't believe in medical marijuana," Fox says. "Some law enforcement and community leaders are not interested in working with advocates and community organizations on how best to implement the policies."

Also lacking in the Treatment Amendment is a "medical defense" clause — a flaw that resonates loudly with Cannabis Act supporter Daniello. Immediately after she delivered her fifth child seven years ago, the Geauga County resident developed severe back pain. "I was more of a natural medicine type of person my entire life," she says. But her husband, an emergency room physician, eventually convinced her to see a doctor.

"They tried everything — neurontin, some kind of injections, and pain pills," she says of Cleveland Clinic specialists. "Nothing worked."

Before she knew it, she was addicted to percocet. "I was up to 12 a day," says Daniello, a youthful, petite 43-year-old who decorates her long auburn tresses with a braid made from yarn and a purple feather. She describes constantly impaired thinking that continued for three years while she took the drug, and she blames that impairment, at least partly, for the demise of her marriage.

Faced with a divorce and disgusted by the pain pills, Daniello threw them all away and instead tried pot, which alleviated the back spasms and pain. But a little more than two years ago, she was caught with half a joint.

"They took my children away," she says. "I don't want this to ever happen to any other mother."

Courts don't usually take children over misdemeanor pot possession. But in Daniello's case, she says, her estranged husband successfully used the charge in custody proceedings. After six months of negative THC tests, the children were returned, and Daniello has been relying on holistic pain relief techniques, like massage, ever since.

The irony, she says, is that nobody would have cared — and she wouldn't have lost the kids — if she had kept taking all that percocet.

The Cannabis Act would revive the old 1996 medical defense: Anyone charged with misdemeanor possession could escape the charge by producing a doctor's recommendation for weed after the fact.

The Cannabis Act differs from the Treatment Amendment in other substantial ways. It allows a registered patient to possess twice the weed (seven ounces) and allows licensed growers to produce twice as many plants. The list of ailments for which pot can be prescribed under the Cannabis Act would be best termed as more "all-encompassing." For one thing, the Treatment Amendment specifies "wasting" or "nausea," which could be side effects of HIV treatments; the Cannabis Act includes all HIV-positive people, whether or not they are taking anything for it.

"We are taking a different approach," says Cannabis Act spokesman Ben Morrison, 26, an untreated HIV-positive Cleveland Heights resident. He's also been diagnosed with a small bundle of cognitive and psychiatric problems, including attention deficit disorder, for which marijuana is quickly emerging as a remedy.

"Our focus is on patient privacy and using the existing regulatory structure," he says. The Cannabis Act would create a new state division, mirroring the Ohio Division of Liquor Control, which would limit state lawmakers' and local municipalities' control. Local lawmakers could opt out and prohibit commercial cultivators and medical marijuana dispensaries in their town, for example, but they could not prohibit state-registered patients from growing weed themselves.

The Cannabis Act also specifies that patient registration fees can't be more than twice the cost of a driver's license and that cultivation licenses cannot exceed the cost of a state liquor license. State tax on the sale of medical marijuana would be capped at 1 percent for dried plants and 2 percent for other medicinal products, like tinctures for tea and pot-laced foods. The state legislature would not have to dictate them.

Most important to Morrison and Daniello, though, is that enforcement would rest solely with the newly created state division. Only trained agents could inspect medical marijuana dispensaries, much as liquor control agents oversee Ohio's 477 liquor stores.

"Enforcement of the amendment is not with the local police departments," says Daniello, who tells tales of Denver police stations receiving a constant feed from the state health department detailing who is — or is not — a registered patient. "It's between the patient and doctor. It's nobody else's business," she adds, citing federal patient privacy laws. "Patients will not have to expect a knock on the door from armed officers."

But Treatment Amendment spokesman Maitland complained in a voicemail to Scene that the Cannabis Act would increase the size of Ohio's Constitution by 30 percent.

"It's very clearly something that's designed for commercial interests and not for medicine," he said. "We were just going to go ahead and be cool with everybody and let it slide, and just do our own thing and ignore them."

But not anymore. "We are now taking offense to what they are trying to do in Ohio. It's the most horribly written medical marijuana bill ever."

The Marijuana Policy Project, meanwhile, says the Cannabis Act has potential. "Legalized medical marijuana has generally worked better where it has been under state control," admits Fox.

But all parties agree that it would be very unlikely for both initiatives to wind up before voters. If both manage to survive the attorney general's office, only one is likely to raise enough money to successfully complete the massive task of getting the 385,000-plus voter signatures needed for a spot on the ballot. And according to Fox, politically savvy pro-pot organizations are more likely to fund the initiative that is most likely to pass.

But for now, it doesn't matter whether one signs an initial petition for the Treatment Amendment or the Cannabis Act. "Just be sure to sign one of them," Fox says. "Or both."

Changing Times

For years, Nelson Ledges was Ohio's answer to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park — only better, with its clear, deep swimming quarry and woods ideal for sequestering glassy-eyed partiers with their friends, music, and pot. Then came the 1980s and the War on Drugs.

At the annual Mid-West Reggae Fest, the music still resounds, barefoot dancers still prance about, and campers cluster together in the woods. But today, the haze in the air is mostly just mist evaporating from the cool water, and nobody cannonballing into it is naked anymore.

The glassy-eyed are still here, and the occasional waft from a joint floats past the nose, but it is more subdued these days. That doesn't stop a steady stream of revelers from finding their way to the NORML tent, where Neufer is collecting signatures for the Treatment Amendment.

Do they know there are two very different proposals afoot? Nope. Do they care? Maybe, but right now they just want to sign the petition. None seem to relate the medical marijuana initiative to their recreational use of the drug.

"It's only a misdemeanor already," says a thirtysomething Shaun from Toledo. "But my understanding is it's important that Ohio legalize medical marijuana because the more states that do, the better it is for getting the federal government out of the way."

"Yeah, it's silly," laughs a bystander. "The penalty for having a pipe or paraphernalia is worse than for having the pot!"

Another signer is John Visnauskas, executive director of All Faiths Pantry, a non-profit that delivers weekly groceries to 400 cash-strapped elderly and homebound residents in Parma and Brooklyn. "There are at least several people in our program that currently use marijuana for their symptoms. They're not kids; they're on Social Security. I do worry for them that they risk huge hassles in terms of their landlords or local law enforcement," he says. "With the stigma removed, I'm sure there would be more who would use it."

As a businessman, Visnauskas sees other advantages. "I imagine some of our individual board members would be interested in starting a non-profit that would cultivate medical marijuana for underserved patients," he says. "It would create jobs."

Meanwhile, Daniello and Morrison say they have seen no opposition to the Cannabis Act from anti-drug groups or anyone else. But they expect opposition will come, mostly from liquor manufacturers and lobbyists for pharmaceutical companies aiming to make millions from new pain drugs that will replace the percocet she blames for her own undoing.

When that opposition starts, the national organizations like NORML will have answers. One of their big guns is likely to be Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard professor of psychiatry and one of the medical community's loudest advocates for legalizing marijuana for four more than decades. At 83, he still occasionally invites students to gather around his volcano to talk about it.

"When I looked out my academic window of the '60s and saw all these young people destroying their lives with marijuana, and of course as a physician I knew all about drugs, I decided to write an article on how bad it was," he says. "My closest friend then was [astronomer] Carl Sagan. I told him he shouldn't use marijuana, that it was very bad."

But after researching the plant, Grinspoon changed his mind and became a student of weed's effects and properties. "It's quite safe," he says, noting that nobody in recorded history has died from it.

"The federal government continues to insist, obtusely, that marijuana is not a medicine. I think it will be the next wonder drug," he adds, now that large studies of its effects are being conducted in countries and states where it has been legalized. He sees a wide range of potential uses, and he's not hearing the view of physicians who disagree.

"They fall into the category of ignorant," he says.

As the sun sets behind the trees surrounding the quarry and the shade hits the NORML tent, Neufer says she has always agreed with the good doctor.

"I smoked a lot of pot. You know — I was in college. And I have never seen that it does anything bad."

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