Is Ohio going to pot?


COLUMBUS — Ohio will be making another trek into the national spotlight on Election Day when voters will decide about legalizing marijuana for both recreational and medicinal use.

The latest poll conducted by Quinnipiac University shows the Nov. 3 vote to be a close one.

If it passes, Ohio will become the first state east of the Mississippi River to legalize marijuana. It is already legal in Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Those states first legalized the medicinal use of marijuana, then followed with the recreational use. Unlike those four, State Issue 3 in Ohio is going all in, all at once.

The Quinnipiac polling numbers show a slight majority, 53 percent, favoring recreational use in Ohio while 90 percent back medical usage. That poll of 1,180 Ohioans was taken Sept. 25-Oct. 5, and has a 2.9 margin of error.

“A lot of money is going to be spent in the final weeks leading up to the election by those against legalization. It’s hard to say what that means,” said retired Cincinnati Police Captain Howard Rhatz during a visit to The Lima News. Rhatz has been outspoken in favor of legalization, appearing in television advertisements across the state that have been produced by ResponsibleOhio, the marijuana advocacy group which put the issue on the ballot.

To proponents of Issue 3, approving legalized marijuana is akin to the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, legalizing alcohol.

Rhatz says Issue 3 will remove the No. 1 product of illegal drug cartels — marijuana — thus stripping them of a large source of income.

“It is the cash cow of the cartels,” Rhatz said. “About 60 percent of their revenue comes from marijuana sales, so I ask myself, ‘If we want to hurt these folks, how do we do it?’ We take their No. 1 product away from them.”

Ian James, executive director for ResponsibleOhio, agrees. He said dealers do not look at a customer’s age when selling them marijuana.

“To say we’re safer with prohibition is akin to saying we’re safer with bootleggers and moonshiners than liquor stores and convenience stores,” he said.

Lima Police Chief Kevin Martin asserted that it would be naive to believe that drug dealers would be crippled by not having marijuana in their arsenal.

“Instead, what will probably happen is that their resources will be diverted to human trafficking or trafficking heavier, harder drugs,” he said.

When it comes to crime, however, Rhatz asserted that alcohol has driven more people to crime and violence, including domestic violence, than marijuana could.

“I’ve never in my career responded to family trouble where someone had smoked marijuana and decided to beat the hell out of their significant other,” he said.

Medical uses

In a recent television campaign, ResponsibleOhio made the Benton family the face of medical marijuana, highlighting how the family was compelled to move from Ohio to Colorado to treat their daughter Addyson’s severe epilepsy.

“They moved to Colorado and she has a THC patch and she is down to under 10 seizures a day,” Rhatz said. “When I think about this little girl, that’s enough for me. I don’t think we need to go any further. It’s helping her.”

However, the benefits of medicinal marijuana are still being studied and debated, which concerns Michael Schoenhofer, executive director of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Allen, Auglaize and Hardin Counties. He favors the easing of federal restrictions on the medical research of marijuana, but without that knowledge, believes medical marijuana has risks.

“Let’s say someone has a legitimate disease and someone is given a benefit from marijuana use,” he said. “In any other situation, they’re given a bottle saying to take this much at this time. But in this case, a person could be overmedicating.”

Business impact

When it comes to how legal marijuana would impact businesses, the Lima/Allen County Chamber of Commerce sees dangers in bringing it to the workplace.

“Issue 3 will exacerbate the difficulty employers already face in recruiting drug-free employees and undermine efforts to keep workplaces safe and drug-free,” the chamber said in its resolution opposing the issue. “Rising marijuana use compromises work productivity and will cause an increase in accidents, injuries and absenteeism in the workplace.”

Schoenhofer notes that it will be difficult for employers to enforce a drug-free workplace.

“So if you test someone for a drug screen and they have a screening for marijuana, part of the legislation, as it’s written, says there needs to be a ‘visual impairment,’ but that’s not defined very well,” he said. “Are you staggering around and can’t walk a straight line?”

Proponents assert that it will instead help Ohio’s economy, with as much as $550 million in tax revenue from sales along with more than 1,100 sales licenses available for dispensaries, which will create jobs. In addition, marijuana could bring about a new tourism industry in the state.

“I’ve talked with a lot of people who have said they’ve gone to Colorado just for the marijuana,” ResponsibleOhio spokesman Michael McGovern said. “We would be the only state in this part of the country to have legal marijuana, which could bring people from all surrounding states to spend their dollars here.”

Monopoly concerns

One of the biggest concerns for opponents of Issue 3 is that it would only allow for 10 commercial growing facilities, giving them a corner on the market. Investors in these facilities include such people as former 98 Degrees singer Nick Lachey, NBA and University of Cincinnati basketball alumnus Oscar Robertson, and former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Frostee Rucker.

“Obviously, most of them have coughed up a lot of money, expecting big profits from it,” said former Ohio Supreme Court justice and current state Rep. Bob Cupp, who opposes legalization. “Issue 3 will give this small group an opportunity to make millions of dollars. And it will be enshrined in the constitution. If it doesn’t work out, it’s going to be very difficult to change. It makes Ohio an experiment, and I do not think that should be.”

Rhatz asserted that this model would allow for tighter, more safer regulations of the product.

“In Colorado, you have the wild west commercial system,” he said. “If we only have 10 farms, are they easier to regulate than letting every Tom, Dick and Henrietta set up a business and try to control it from the state?”

For James, that regulation will allow for a safe, consistent product that will be easier to monitor.

“Until you regulate it, you can’t control it,” he said.

Social impact

Attorney Jim Fisher has been practicing law for around five decades and has a reputation of being one of the top defense attorneys in Northwest Ohio. He worries about the social impact of legalization. Fisher said he always asks his clients who have been involved with hard drugs how they got started. “Every one of them say marijuana. And now we want to make it easier for people to abuse marijuana? I don’t get it,” Fisher said.

The 1,100 retail stores that Issue 3 would allow in Ohio is more than the number of Starbucks or McDonald’s locations in the state and nearly three times the number of state liquor stores in Ohio. Stores also will be allowed to sell marijuana-laced cookies and candies as well as lotions and sprays.

“That’s sending a message to kids that marijuana is OK,” Fisher said.

Cupp pointed to a 170-page report released by the federal government in September that examined what has happened in Colorado since it legalized marijuana in 2013. In a year’s time, it found:

• Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 32 percent

• Marijuana-related emergency department visits increased 29 percent

• Marijuana-related hospitalizations increased 38 percent.

“That should scare everyone,” Cupp said.

Constitutional issue

The Ohio State Bar Association is taking no position on the merits of whether marijuana should be legalized. It has serious concerns, however, with the manner in which legalization would occur, and thus opposes Issue 3.

“A constitution is not intended to set forth regulatory specificities such as those contained in State Issue 3, including specific tax and fee schedules and other special economic benefits that can be changed only by later constitutional amendment. We firmly believe that it was never the intention of the framers of our Constitution to have it cluttered with matters best left to the respective branches of government,” OSBA President John D. Holschuh Jr. wrote in a position statement issued by the bar association.

Rhatz doesn’t buy that. He points out the constitutional amendment finally gives the people a chance to vote on an important issue that the Ohio Legislature has avoided for nearly two decades.

“The definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing over and over,” Rhatz said. “Not addressing our failed drug policies has been insane.”

By Craig Kelly

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Reach Craig Kelly at [email protected].

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