Ohioans could soon legally toke up if the Ohio Rights Group succeeds in its efforts to legalize medical marijuana and industrial hemp across the state.
The 2014 ballot effort tackles the issue as Colorado and Washington move along with full-on marijuana legalization and President Barack Obama, a vocal skeptic of legalization, allows both states to pursue their “experiments.”
But before Ohio can vote on the issue in November, the Ohio Rights Group first needs to gather 385,247 petition signatures, which in large part must come from at least half of Ohio’s 88 counties, and present them to Ohio’s secretary of state before a July deadline. For a grassroots campaign, that presents a considerable — and costly — statewide undertaking.
Mary Jane Borden, secretary and treasurer of the Ohio Rights Group, says the response so far has been great.
“It is unbelievable to me, considering that we started this time last year,” Borden says. “We’ve activated all but six Ohio counties. And by the end of this week I’m told that we’ll have all 88 counties led by what we call ‘county captains.’”
Borden says the group is currently calling back petition signatures to get a clearer idea of where the campaign stands today. As of September 2013, the group estimated it had 30,000 signatures. With an estimated 6,000 petitions in circulation and each petition containing the potential of 36 signatures, the group could get up to 216,000 additional signatures from its callback.
“That would turn out to be (the case) if every single one of the signature blocks was filled out, which they probably wouldn’t,” Borden says. “We estimated in our prior efforts 20-25 signatures per petition when you average them out between the ones that have the full 36 versus the onesies and the twosies.”
The group could certainly use the boost from thousands of maximized petitions. Its campaign finance report for 2013 showed it only raised about $22,000 throughout the year, nearly $4,500 of which remains on hand for future expenditures. That’s far below the millions of dollars typically deemed necessary for statewide ballot issues.
Amy Wolfinbarger, Hamilton County captain of the Ohio Rights Group, acknowledges some of the campaign’s hurdles.
“Funding is obviously an issue,” she says. “We’re hoping we’ll get to a certain number (of petition signatures) and people will start throwing money at us.”
Still, the group has some political tides in its favor as a clear majority of the nation moves toward supporting full legalization.
An October poll from Gallup found 58 percent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana and only 39 percent oppose it, with a margin of error of 4 percent.
In Ohio, a Saperstein Associates poll conducted for The Columbus Dispatch in March found 63 percent of Ohioans favor legalizing medical marijuana and 35 percent oppose it, with a margin of error of 3.1 percent. That contrasted with full marijuana legalization, which polled Ohioans opposed 59-37.
Among the supporters is Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access (VMCA). Michael Krawitz, a U.S. Air Force veteran injured in an accident and founding director of VMCA, says the unique benefits of medical marijuana for many issues that afflict veterans — suicide, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — spurred veterans like him to support the movement early on.
As an example, Krawitz eagerly points out the first person to buy legal marijuana in Colorado — Sean Azzariti — was an Iraq War veteran who sought the drug to cope with his PTSD.
Although it’s legally tricky to study the benefits of marijuana because of its legal prohibition and the federal government’s stranglehold on research dollars, studies so far show the drug could help with a variety of medical problems.
A study released in August by the American Journal of Public Health found legalizing medical marijuana reduced suicides by 10.8 percent for men between the ages of 20 and 29 and 9.4 percent for men between the ages of 30 and 39.
“The negative relationship between legalization and suicides among young men is consistent with the hypothesis that marijuana can be used to cope with stressful life events,” the study concluded, before advising further analysis.
Another study from the New York University Langone Medical Center released in May used brain imaging and found a potential link between the amount of cannabinoid receptors in the human brain and PTSD.
“There’s a consensus among clinicians that existing pharmaceutical treatments such as antidepressants simply do not work,” said Alexander Neumeister, the study’s lead researcher, in a statement. “In fact, we know very well that people with PTSD who use marijuana — a potent cannabinoid — often experience more relief from their symptoms than they do from antidepressants and other psychiatric medications.”
A 2010 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found smoking marijuana three times a day for five days “reduced the intensity of pain, improved sleep and was well tolerated.” The findings echoed the conclusions reached for treating chronic pain among HIV-positive patients by a 2007 study published in Neurology.
At an anecdotal level, some medical marijuana users claim the drug helps treat epilepsy. Others tout it as a potential treatment for nausea and appetite — a particularly powerful combination for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Many opponents of laxer drug laws say the mere mention of legalization of any sort encourages and increases marijuana use, particularly among youth. But the available data refutes their claims.
According to data from Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, reported marijuana use in the past 30 days among youth dropped from 25.3 percent to 23.1 percent between 1995 — a year before California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana — and 2011.
While the debate continues in the political and medical worlds, some potential businesses are already gearing up for legalization. In Cincinnati, Comfy Tree Cannabis Collective on Feb. 1 hosted a business seminar for entrepreneurs looking to open their own marijuana businesses. Topics included setting up the correct financials and security, building the best business team and establishing a niche in the market.
If other states’ experiences are any indication, the potential for new businesses and entrepreneurs could create thousands of jobs as dispensaries pop up around Ohio. An industry-sponsored study from an Arizona State University researcher in March found medical marijuana businesses will eventually create more than 1,500 jobs in Arizona, which legalized the plant for medical uses in 2010. Arizona’s population is about half that of Ohio.
The question for the Ohio Rights Group is whether the widespread support in the state, medical studies and potential for economic impact will win out over the campaign’s current shortfalls. It’s a big deal for the group, which hopes a broader movement will follow if Ohio legalizes medical marijuana.
“As goes Ohio, so goes the nation,” Borden says. “What you hear here is being echoed across the country.” ©
The Ohio Rights Group encourages volunteers to join the medical marijuana legalization movement at ohiorights.org and facebook.com/ohiorightsgroup.