It's time for Ohio legislators to stop playing politics with pot

Perhaps the most pervasive and clichéd image of the "War on Drugs" is the pot-bust press conference, where law-enforcement officials pat themselves on the back in front of a spread of cash, guns and cannabis. State representative Kenny Yuko daydreams about a different sort of press conference. There are no police, no guns and no mind-boggling street-value estimates. There are only sick Ohioans, telling people about the benefits of medical cannabis.

"You read about it all the time," says Yuko. "You see the police officers standing behind a table full of packages with marijuana and they're telling you: 'Ten million dollar street value.' I would much rather have a bunch of elderly people standing around a table with a couple of [cannabis] plants saying, 'The value is not $10 million, it's not $ 5 million — it's priceless. I can wake up in the morning and eat breakfast, I can walk, I have a full day ahead of me and I can make it.'" 

It's a heady vision, one that seems far from reality in our staid, conservative state. But it isn't dissuading Yuko from asking: Why not medical marijuana in Ohio?

Attitudes are changing. Michigan voters last year approved medical marijuana, making it the first state in the Midwest to do so. Then, last month, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it would not go after medical marijuana users and suppliers if they complied with state law. This had not been the case in the Bush years, when federal agents commonly raided state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries in California.

Yuko, a state representative from Richmond Heights, says he intends to introduce legislation that would make Ohio the 14th state to allow marijuana use for the treatment of ailments like chronic pain, nausea, vomiting and muscle spasms. He says marijuana could offer relief to Ohioans who can't find it in pharmaceuticals.

Passing the bill will be a tough task. Yuko realizes he has heavy opposition from lawmakers who don't even want to discuss the subject. He also has 72 years of marijuana prohibition working against him — prohibition that last year enabled 847,864 marijuana arrests, 89 percent of those for possession alone.

"It's really sexy image to be tough on crime, tough on criminals," says Yuko. "I'm sensing I'm going to get pointed opposition up until we educate."

Yuko's announcement has earned the low-key politician face time on CNN (the topic in general continues to get more attention in the mainstream media). Yuko says it has also created a buzz among pro-marijuana groups.

"There are people calling to offer their support, people asking how they can help, people asking what they can do to expedite legalizing [medical marijuana] in Ohio," says Yuko. These supporters aren't the stereotypical stoners depicted in pop culture, he says. The support has come from elderly women to middle-class dwellers in the bedroom communities he represents. "They are residents of Ohio — law-abiding, taxpaying people who want to contribute as much to the state of Ohio as they want to contribute to their families. [Some] are impaired due to the fact they're in tremendous pain. It just so happens that we may be on to something that could offer relief.

"Everything I have heard, everything I've seen, indicates that this product has tremendous potential."

A bill proposed last year by former state senator Tom Roberts, a Dayton-area Democrat, died in the senate judiciary committee. Still, it was the first time lawmakers heard testimony from a doctor on the issue. Richard J. Wyderski, a physician and former professor at Wright State University's Department of Medicine, said in an article that appeared in Scene earlier this year that scientific evidence shows marijuana can be used for several medical purposes, including treatment of multiple sclerosis and nausea in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. 

Other maladies approved for treatment by state medical marijuana laws include HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, and conditions that cause severe or persistent muscle spasms and seizures. Research projects into the plant's medicinal qualities have concluded that marijuana could also have medical benefits for Lou Gehrig's, Crohn's and Alzheimer's diseases.

Medical marijuana users say cannabis does not produce the side effects of pharmaceuticals for the same illnesses.

Thirteen states have already passed some type of medical-marijuana legislation, amid polls showing growing public acceptance — even in Ohio. Rob Ryan, with the Columbus-based Ohio Patient Network, points to a poll conducted by the University of Cincinnati's Institute for Policy Research earlier this year, which concluded that 73 percent of Ohioans support medical marijuana. The independent, nonpartisan poll showed support even among socially and politically conservative Ohioans.

But if public attitudes are changing, we're not seeing much of a difference in Columbus.

House Speaker Armond Budish has declined to speak publicly about the topic. Republican Senate Leader Bill Harris, from Ashland, has already announced that he would not support such legislation. Harris "is just not convinced on the merits of the proposal," says Tim Kelso, his spokesman. "Law enforcement has expressed concerns about it, and if they continue to express concerns, then he'll continue to have concerns."

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association has already stated its opposition to any medical-marijuana legislation, saying the drug is "habit-forming" and "harmful." "As far as pain relief, there are other methods to address the issue," says John Murphy, executive director of the prosecutors association.

That attitude is echoed on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's website, which devotes an entire section to "the facts" of medical marijuana. The agency points out that Marinol is a pharmaceutical with synthetic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But Marinol does not have the same effects as natural cannabis, says Cher Neufer, a spokeswoman for the Ohio branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Marinol provides only some relief compared to natural marijuana and creates undesirable side effects.

Not every conservative-leaning politician is opposed to medical marijuana. State senator Bill Seitz, a Republican from Cincinnati, says he is willing to discuss the topic, but he has a problem with the "terrible tension" he sees between federal and state laws on marijuana. The Obama administration may ease up on medical-marijuana users and distributors, but that doesn't guarantee that a future administration will do the same. So an Ohio medical- marijuana law would create a "false sense of security at the state level for doctors and patients who want to do this," says Seitz.

While Seitz believes many of his colleagues would "recoil in horror" at the prospect of legalizing medical cannabis, he says he's "willing to embark on what I think will be a lengthy educational process for Ohio."

Michigan voters, by 63 percent, approved medical marijuana in 2008. 

There, doctors can recommend marijuana for "debilitating medical conditions," which include cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and HIV, among others. Patients in Michigan may possess up to 2.5 ounces of cured marijuana and 12 plants.  

Much of Michigan's success can be attributed to a multimillion dollar campaign led by the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, says Ed Orlett of the Drug Policy Alliance Ohio. (One of the project's main money men is Peter B. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Corp.) "Some people think Michigan rushed to judgment," says Orlett. "The law wasn't perfect. The one thing they did do is agree on a ballot initiative. It may not have been perfect, but it got more votes than Obama did."

The Michigan Department of Community Health, which administers the state's medical-marijuana program, has received more than 8,000 applications for registration cards that would allow applicants or their caregivers to grow or possess limited amounts of marijuana for personal medical use, according to James McCurtis, spokesman for the department. Of those applications, about 1,000 were denied. Patients have received 5,108 permits; caregivers, 2,092.

When asked if the program created any burden for the department, McCurtis says no. "Maybe H1N1," he adds, "but not this."

The process in Michigan hasn't been entirely smooth. Greg Francisco, founder and executive of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, the state's leading advocacy group, says the state's attorney general has not issued any guidelines. "He knows this is a hot potato, politically," explains Francisco. So police departments across the state have had to come up with their own methods for handling cases involving the cultivation or possession of medical marijuana.

For example, the law calls for plants to be grown in "an enclosed, locked facility," but does not elaborate. "The police have had to educate themselves to what the limits of the law are," says Francisco.

Getting the ballot measure passed was much easier.

"There was virtually no campaign at all," says Francisco. "Once we got it on the ballot, we just sat back and kept our mouths shut ... for the simple reason that we knew from extensive polls and focus groups that we had a virtually insurmountable majority on our side already. Hence, the key issue was the public's sense of compassion and common sense. Having that in our favor, the actual win at the polls was a slam dunk."

In Ohio, however, state lawmakers seem unconvinced that medical-marijuana reform is not just politically safe but popular.

"I think it's a difficult subject for people to talk about because of the false connotation that you must be a bad person, you must a drug addict, you hang out with drug dealer, you're not right and you'll never be right," says Yuko. "We need to change that public perception."

Yuko has represented Euclid, South Euclid, Richmond Heights and Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood since 2004. The former union organizer has been lauded for advocacy on health issues, specifically multiple sclerosis. He's also been recognized for advocating for people with disabilities and mental illnesses. In 2005, he pushed an ill-fated bill on stem-cell research, which he felt would have helped multiple sclerosis studies.

Yuko brings a personal perspective to the debate: The 57-year-old suffers from multiple sclerosis. His symptoms are minor and controlled with medication. He says he has never smoked marijuana and doesn't plan to. He's pursuing this for the many citizens who could benefit and who have been cheering him on. "The phone has been ringing off the hook," he says.

Yuko tells a story of a 67-year-old Ohio woman whose sister in California found relief from cancer in medical marijuana. "She told me, 'You can't look into [marijuana reform], you need to go do it, because it's the right thing to do.' Now here's a lady in her late 60s — this is not your stereotype when you think of a 'druggie.' The opponents will always want to paint that picture."

Yuko is still drafting his bill, which he hopes will be considered by his colleagues in 2010. The bill will include wording for limited distribution and bureaucracy. Yuko's idea includes making the drug available through the mail. He envisions medical marijuana grown in nurseries in Lake County, a suggestion made to him by a constituent. "We can grow the marijuana in a very controlled environment with a number of plants that will be counted and accounted for, so we know where every plant is going and in what quantities," says Yuko. 

Drug Policy Alliance Ohio's Orlett, a former Democratic legislator, is helping Yuko. Orlett says Yuko's bill has a good chance of passing the house but faces a tough test in the senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1.

Orlett has been intimately involved in Ohio drug-reform efforts. In 2002, Orlett and the Drug Policy Alliance backed an initiative that would have mandated treatment instead of jail for drug offenders. But the $3-million campaign failed in the face of heavy resistance from Republicans, including Hope Taft, the wife of former governor Bob Taft. "She thought she was Carrie Nation incarnate," says Orlett, referring to the famed liquor prohibitionist. Taft and other opponents "managed to line up the newspapers, law enforcement, county prosecutors, sheriffs and judges [against the reform initiative]," says Orlett. "It was a very concentrated effort."

And even as public opinion has shifted dramatically, the attitude of state lawmakers has not budged. Ryan, of Ohio Patients Network, notes an irony here: Ohio has some of the most lenient laws on marijuana possession. You can get caught with up to 100 grams and only get fined. Ryan argues that this has kept Ohioans from becoming more involved in the marijuana-legalization movement, compared to Michigan, which had stricter laws. "It's tough to get people active not because they disagree, but because they don't feel the pain other states do," says Ryan.

Orlett adds that Ohio isn't on the radar for groups like the Marijuana Policy Project, which has funded expensive ballot measures in other states beside Michigan. "We just don't have the resources to attack this [in the same manner] as in Michigan," says Orlett. 

Yuko remains undeterred.

"Sometimes I wish we would move a bit faster in Ohio," he says, referring to the 13 states that already have some form of legalization. "I don't know why we always have to be playing catch up, why we always have to be in the bottom half of the 50 states when moving an agenda forward. Why can't we be the leader of the pack?"

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