Straight dope

Ohio would benefit from a carefully regulated experiment with legalized medical marijuana


Now that voters in Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana in their states, it’s a matter of time before the issue reaches Ohio. If our state is not prepared to take that big a leap all at once, it still ought to look favorably at joining the 18 states — including Michigan — that authorize the growth, sale, and use of marijuana for medical purposes.

A special report that begins today in The Blade looks at Michigan’s experience since voters approved that state’s medical-marijuana law five years ago. Business writer Kris Turner reports that marijuana cultivation, both legal and illegal, has become big business in Michigan, Ohio, and other Midwestern states.

As public acceptance of therapeutic marijuana use has grown, the industry is increasingly joining the mainstream. Michigan now has more than 50,000 registered marijuana growers and nearly 125,000 patients who are eligible to smoke.

Michigan growers are cultivating strains of the drug, often in hydroponic (water-based) operations in their homes, that can help give patients relief from chronic pain and epileptic seizures without getting them high.

At the same time, critics note that innovations in illegal cultivation have created potent, high-grade “designer” versions of marijuana that sell for more than $200 an ounce in Toledo. Although marijuana growing remains illegal in Ohio, Toledo police say hydroponic cultivation here is increasingly profitable.

Michigan’s law has not been an unqualified success. The state has had trouble setting up and regulating its system of cultivation and of dispensaries, which buy medical marijuana from growers. Advocates and opponents have sought to distort the law for ideological purposes.

The Michigan law prohibits most state inspections of legal cultivation operations, to protect the privacy of patients who grow their own. An undetermined amount of marijuana that is grown legally gets diverted to the illegal market.

Still, medical-marijuana laws, in Michigan and elsewhere, have not created mass addiction, as opponents warned they would. The laws are helping people cope with such debilitating ailments as cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, and AIDS, enabling them to live more fully. And the laws appropriately define marijuana use as a public-health issue.

Ohio and Michigan have taken small steps toward marijuana legalization. In Ohio, possession of less than 100 grams for personal use is a misdemeanor, subject to a $150 fine. A bill before Michigan’s legislature would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana statewide.

Advocates want to amend Ohio’s constitution “to provide for the medical, therapeutic, and industrial use and regulation” of marijuana. The state Ballot Board certified the proposal last week.

Under the proposal, an Ohio Commission of Cannabis Control — including farmers, medical and mental-health professionals, law enforcement officers, and state officials — would regulate medical marijuana in the state.

To get the initiative on November’s ballot, supporters would have to collect more than 385,000 valid signatures from registered voters. That likely won’t happen this November. But the issue could go before Ohio voters next year.

A complication: In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on marijuana for medical use, even in states where it is legal. Federal officials feared that such state laws could cause greater availability of marijuana in other states where it remains illegal. More recently, though, President Obama has said that prosecuting marijuana users in Colorado and Washington will not be a priority of his administration.

A more tolerant, but regulated, approach to legal marijuana production, distribution, and consumption, for medical or recreational purposes, could weaken the drug gangs that operate illegally in this country and Mexico — and the money, violence, and proliferation of guns that sustain their power. Sensible tax policy can discourage marijuana use, even as it provides a source of revenue.

Polls suggest that most Americans, if not necessarily Ohioans, now advocate legalizing marijuana; three-fourths agree that marijuana enforcement is not worth the public expense. “Reefer madness” hysteria has become an artifact of 1930s exploitation movies and old episodes of Dragnet.

No one seriously advocates unrestricted marijuana use, any more than the use of tobacco and alcohol, among young people. But a carefully controlled experiment in legal availability of medical marijuana to Ohio adults is worth a try.