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.


"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.