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Ohio’s Issue 3 more complicated than support for legal marijuana

Questions, gray areas worry some

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With 23 days left for Ohio voters to make up their minds on legalizing marijuana, there are a lot of complicated issues to consider.

State Issue 3 on the ballot Nov. 3 would amend the Ohio Constitution to allow adults 21 and older to possess an ounce of marijuana and get a permit to grow four flowering plants and keep 8 ounces of homegrown pot.

It also would allow anyone of any age to use marijuana for medical reasons — with a certificate from a licensed Ohio physician.

And a provision that both pays the bills for the campaign by the pro-legalization group ResponsibleOhio and arouses its harshest opposition would etch into the constitution 10 parcels in the state on which commercial marijuana could be exclusively grown. The 10 are already owned by investors in the marijuana legalization campaign.

If Issue 3 were simply a question of supporting legalization of marijuana, polls show a slim majority of Ohioans would say yes. But it’s not that simple.

Issue 3 would usher in a projected $2.2 billion industry that today exists only in the shadows. It follows the model set in 2009 when four casino locations were written into the constitution, including one in East Toledo, by a majority of Ohio voters.

Numerous questions have surfaced about the amendment. Where could people smoke? How will law enforcement prosecute pot-impaired drivers? Who gets licenses to sell marijuana products? What effect will it have in the work force?

Dozens of organizations representing doctors, hospitals, businesses, farmers, and law enforcement have come out against the proposal. And while the “Vote No on 3” campaign says it has far less money to spend than ResponsibleOhio, it is maintaining a steady drip of opposition news conferences to alert — or scare — the public about the amendment’s implications.

Dr. Bruce Barnett, a pediatric pulmonologist and vice president of medical affairs at ProMedica Toledo Hospital, said last week that states with legal marijuana have more people going to emergency rooms because of ingestion of the drug. 

Wendy Gramza, the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce’s president, said “funneling marijuana profits to a small group of investors” violates the principles of free enterprise.

Fewer organizations have endorsed the amendment, but the campaign to pass it is well-funded, with an estimated $20 million because each of the 10 investors, or investor partnerships, has agreed to put up at least $4 million, of which $2 million is for the campaign.

 

The proposal

Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said marijuana prohibition has contributed to “mass incarceration” of nonviolent offenders, while leaving the supply and distribution of the substance in the hands of violent criminals.

The proposed amendment states that marijuana could not be smoked in “any public place.” Marijuana smoking would be curtailed by the voter-passed ban on smoking in restaurants, bars, and other workplaces.

“We actually wrote the law back then so it would include marijuana in case that came up,” said Shelly Kiser, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Ohio.

Ian James, the executive director of ResponsibleOhio, said the amendment permits marijuana smoking in private residences and not in bar smoking patios. He did not rule out smoking indoors in other private settings and cited the example of “hookah bars,” which he said would require approval by the Marijuana Control Commission that would be established by the amendment.

Another area of uncertainty is whether motorists would be put at risk by stoned drivers weaving around on the highways. Police now use a field Breathalyzer test on those suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, but suspicions of driving under the influence of marijuana would have to involve a blood test. The amendment prohibits driving under the influence of marijuana or smoking marijuana in a vehicle, but it leaves it up to future action by the General Assembly to define marijuana impairment.

“If you have enough marijuana in your blood you can be charged with driving while under the influence,” said Jay McDonald, president of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, which opposes Issue 3.

“You have to take a blood sample,” he said. “If they refuse, then you can get a search warrant. But you’re not likely to do that unless it involves a fatality.”

Mr. James said inventors are developing technology to measure marijuana impairment. He said it was not until 21 years after the end of alcohol prohibition that the Breathalyzer was invented.

“Science catches up with society,” Mr. James said, adding that the Breathalyzer was developed because alcohol was legal.

Another complication is the presence of Issue 2 on the same ballot. According to the Republican-controlled General Assembly that put it on the ballot, Issue 2 would nullify Issue 3 if voters approve both.

The wording of Issue 2 says any ballot issue enacted on and after Nov. 3, 2015, that grants a commercial monopoly, is “prohibited from taking effect.” And Issue 3 has been officially titled by Secretary of State Jon Husted as a “monopoly” because the 10 marijuana-growing facilities would get exclusive commercial growing rights.

ResponsibleOhio unsuccessfully challenged that word before the Ohio Supreme Court, contending that the 10 growers would compete with each other and that over time a new regulatory panel could add or replace licenses under certain circumstances.

Mr. James noted ResponsibleOhio’s most recent advertising has emphasized, “Vote No on 2, Vote Yes on 3.”

“There’s a plan, and it’s not just to defeat it. It’s to crush it,” Mr. James said.

 

Workplace testing?

One of the 10 marijuana “grows” would be on what is now North Toledo farmland. The parcel is optioned to Cincinnati businessman David Bastos, who plans a 300,000-square-foot facility that would eventually employ 300 people at union wages.

Despite making marijuana legal, Issue 3 would protect an employer’s right to test workers for the drug, something Durable Corp., the 35-employee Norwalk manufacturer of loading dock bumpers, has done for 15 years.

Tom Secor, company president, fears the amendment would make it tougher for employers to find new hires capable of passing the tests and stay on the job.

“I don’t understand what marijuana does to you that’s different than alcohol, but if one employee on the weekend gets drunk and the other gets high, on Monday morning there’s no alcohol in the system of one but the other still has THC in his system,” he said. “The question is ‘At what level and at what point do we need to be concerned about that?’

“I hope this gets defeated,” he said. “Then the legislature should address the medical marijuana issue and take it off the table.”

Mr. James called that “a manufactured concern” and said the people who Mr. Secor are concerned about are already consuming marijuana. He said private businesses would still be able to ban its consumption by their employees, just as they can ban consumption of legal nicotine.

A big step

Ohio would be the first state to go directly to full legalization of marijuana. The four others with legal recreational marijuana — Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon — and Washington, D.C., had years of experience first with medical marijuana.

Ironically, Ohio has one of the most lenient marijuana possession laws in the country. Ohio allows no jail time for small amounts of marijuana, unlike its neighbors.

“The jump to full legalization — the public’s not ready for that. But they’re getting close,” said Sean Nestor, who managed the successful Toledo campaign to pass a local marijuana decriminalization effort in September.

Mr. Nestor, political director of the Ohio Green Party, is an avid supporter of legal cannabis, but he opposes Issue 3 because of its commercial structure.

A poll by Quinnipiac University on Thursday showed that Ohio registered voters favor legalization for personal use by 53 percent to 44 percent.

“You can’t win a statewide ballot question on something as controversial as [Issue 3] with a majority that slim,” Mr. Nestor said.

Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken, an early supporter of Issue 3, said Ohio voters are ready for legalization because “there’s universal acceptance that prohibition of marijuana works no better than prohibition of alcohol worked in the ’30s.”

He said ResponsibleOhio is acting because the legislature has refused to consider medical marijuana. The Quinnipiac Poll showed support for medical marijuana at 90 percent.

Contact Tom Troy: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058 or on Twitter @TomFTroy.

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