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Published: Monday, 5/27/2013

Ohio backers optimistic on medical marijuana

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — Backers of the third attempt in less than two years to legalize medical marijuana in Ohio insist the latest effort will take root as it did in Michigan.

“There’s far more interest in people backing this one, particularly those who want to bring people into the political arena in 2014,” said Bob Fitrakis, a member of the Ohio Rights Group behind the latest effort.

The group just cleared two hurdles to get petition circulators out. Both Attorney General Mike DeWine and the Ohio Ballot Board have signed off on language that would be shown to potential petition signers.

But its two predecessors reached that point too, in late 2011 and early 2012, only to watch momentum then evaporate.

Ohio Rights Group knows it will need significant financial support and probably a deep-pocketed national benefactor if it is to gather nearly 400,000 valid signatures from registered voters.

Five of the six members making up this petition committee also were on the other two committees. But they’ve learned some political lessons along the way.

Unlike the other two, the proposed Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment contains the political buzzword “rights.”

It seeks to combine the sometimes diverging support of therapeutic use of marijuana and the industrial use of marijuana’s nonpsychoactive root plant hemp.

“There’s always been a split in the movement with some strongly advocating industrial hemp but not medical marijuana and others wanting medical marijuana without wanting to deal with the hemp issue,” said Mr. Fitrakis, an attorney and Columbus State Community College professor.

“We had two divided movements,” he said. “We’re trying to put together one grand movement.”

Highlights of Third Try
■Legalizes, licenses, and regulates the production and use of marijuana for medical or therapeutic purposes and hemp for industrial purposes

■Mentions glaucoma, HIV, cancer, and Crohn’s disease as medical conditions for which medical marijuana could be used, but allows a new state commission or lawmakers to expand that list

■Creates the nine-member Ohio Commission of Cannabis Control to regulate medical use of marijuana

■Gives authority to regulate hemp to the Ohio Department of Agriculture

■Permits taxation of medical marijuana and hemp

■Upholds Ohio’s ban on smoking in public places to include marijuana

■Prohibits driving while impaired by marijuana but prevents the simple presence of metabolites in the driver’s blood or urine from being used as the sole evidence of impairment

By bringing in hemp, the backers also hope for buy-in from the current “jobs, jobs, jobs” political mantra that helped to lead voters in 2009 to embrace another industry they had repeatedly rejected in the past, casino gambling.

They hope to appeal to Appalachians who might see this as a legal cash crop for sale for medical purposes or for the manufacture of paper, clothing, fuel, rope, food, or building materials.

By shooting for 2014, when statewide candidates for governor, Congress, and the state legislature will be on the ballot, the backers hope to attract the support of factions that might see this as a way of driving desired voters to the polls.

And by taxing the product, they hope to appeal to those who see it as a new revenue.

Mr. Fitrakis said he believes the stars are aligning.

“Twenty states have already done it,” he said. “The 21st [Illinois] will be coming on board, and that’s usually where Ohio comes in.”

Ohio lawmakers have generally expressed little interest in going in this direction. Past bills to legalize medical marijuana went nowhere, and a recently introduced measure by Rep. Bob Hagan (D., Youngstown) to outright legalize marijuana was seen as dead on arrival.

State Sen. David Burke (R., Marysville), a pharmacist whose Senate district stretches as far north as Sandusky Bay, has been on Ohio’s front line in battling the proliferation of prescription drug “pill mills,” particularly in southern Ohio.

“Drugs in this country are approved by the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration], so whether you get them through the mail, or Walgreens, or your local pharmacy, you know the medication you’re going to get is the same no matter where you live in the United States…,” he said.

“It’s very dangerous if we, as a state, determine what is a prescription product,” he said. “That takes you back to the days of Dr. Smith medicine wagon. There’s no continuity for the chemical which is being prescribed.”

The amendment would leave many decisions to a new bipartisan Ohio Commission of Cannabis Control on dispensing medical marijuana, the Department of Agriculture on hemp production, and lawmakers for both sides.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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