Legalizing marijuana not a high priority in Ohio
MARIETTA – An Ohio legislator said this week that he will not continue the push for recreational marijuana legalization after a resolution to give Ohioans a vote in the matter was sidelined last year in the Ohio House of Representatives.
A house resolution that would have given the issue to Ohio voters in last November’s election was never given a vote, and the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Hagan, D-Youngstown, said he has no plans of revamping the resolution for inclusion in the upcoming general election.
However, he said legalizing medicinal marijuana in the state is still a priority.
One week after marijuana dispensaries opened their doors in Colorado, signaling the denouement in the state’s march toward legalizing recreational use of the drug, speculation is running high on how the change will affect policy in other states.
Though polls show increasingly favorable opinions toward legalizing the drug recreationally, as voters in Colorado and Washington did in 2012, it seems unlikely that Ohio will be the next state to follow suit.
“I think my time is running out for that,” Hagan said Wednesday.
Instead, the longtime advocate for marijuana reform will be focusing his efforts on legalizing medicinal use of the drug. At least four families in Hagan’s constituency have children that suffer from severe seizures, he said. Administered as an oil extracted from the drug, marijuana has proven to significantly cut back on seizures in both children and adults, and the families in his constituency want that option, said Hagan.
“When I watch these 4-, 5-, 6-year-old kids having seizures right in front of me, I ask myself, ‘Why can we not be more progressive?'” he said.
Nationally, opinions have become what Hagan would call more progressive.
According to an October Gallup poll, national support for legalization clearly surpassed opposition for the first time in the history of the 44-year poll. Support for legalization hit its highest number ever – 58 percent.
Locally, many residents are also in favor of legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, the drug.
“I’m for it. I think it’s a great idea,” said Marietta resident Joyce Robinson.
Robinson pointed to Colorado and Washington, which meticulously worked out policies, standards and specifics for use of the drug.
“Plus it’s a boon to the government because of the taxes,” she said.
Colorado’s 25 percent sales tax on the drug is expected to generate $70 million in tax revenue for the state this year.
Hagan’s now sidelined proposal includes a 15 percent excise tax on the drug in Ohio.
Bruce Williams, 71, of Marietta said he is less concerned about the state earning money and more concerned about the state saving money by decriminalizing the drug.
“I’m in favor of it mainly because of the cost of trying to control it, which is obviously not working,” he said.
Too many people are in prison for minor drug offenses, he said.
Last year, 94 minor misdemeanor possession of marijuana cases and 61 misdemeanor paraphernalia cases were filed in Marietta Municipal Court, according to court administrator Jason Hamilton.
However, local law enforcement would much rather continue to enforce the laws against marijuana than deal with the proliferation of problems they predict would coincide with the drug’s legalization, said Major Brian Schuck, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office detective who oversees the Washington-Morgan Major Crimes Task Force.
“We don’t know yet what the rise in crime is going to be because of this,” said Schuck, in reference to the legalization in Colorado and Washington.
In addition, Schuck predicted illegal sales of the drug will continue in Colorado because the retail price – between $200 and $300 an ounce – is significantly higher than that offered by black market dealers.
“There’s still going to be a black market, selling it at a reduced rate and profiting illegally,” he said.
Furthermore, Schuck sees the drug as a gateway to more dangerous narcotics.
“All the years of working narcotics and interviewing suspects that have been arrested, a very large number of those individuals told me that marijuana was the first drug they tried and after a while marijuana no longer did anything for them. They moved on to bigger and better things,” he said.
Legalizing the drug would increase its availability in the community and in turn its availability to juveniles, said Schuck.
This is a concern for Waterford mother and grandmother April Lewis, 51.
“I wouldn’t want my grandchildren to get a hold of it… I see a lot of danger in it,” she said.
Marietta resident Thomas Trombley, 55, agreed.
“It’s dope. If you’re going to ban drugs, ban all drugs,” he said.
Legalizing the drug would require a staggering amount of regulations and could lead to conflicts with local municipalities, said Marietta City Law Director Paul Bertram III.
Many Colorado localities have taken advantage of a portion of the law allowing them to refrain from licensing dispensaries, similar to towns who choose not to allow the sale of alcohol.
However, local municipalities cannot override the state law as far as possession and use are concerned, said Bertram, who opposes legalization.
“The state law controls and local law would normally fall,” he said.
Full legalization in Ohio could also create a problem in the workforce, said Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta.
“One of the biggest issues we have is we have jobs where we can’t find people who can show up in the condition we need them to in order to qualify for work,” he said.
Thompson cited lucrative trucking, pipe fitting, and oil field jobs that often require employees to pass a drug screen and smoking the drug could still be prohibited by employers even if allowed by the state.
That is the case in Colorado, where the law still gives companies the option to enact drug policies forbidding the use of marijuana.
Marietta resident Adam Farmer, 20, said he favored legalizing the drug as long as proper constraints were put in place, such as quantity limits.
Colorado allows users to purchase and possess up to an ounce of the drug at a time.
“Of course not operating machinery, cars while on it should be part of the law,” said Farmer.
Ohio already has legal limits for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, said Lt. Anne Ralston, public affairs commander for the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
Marijuana can only be measured through a blood or urine sample and is measured in nanograms per milliliter of blood or urine, according to the Ohio Revised Code.
Marietta resident Nathan Gundlach, 29, said he thinks marijuana prohibition has created a multitude of problems ranging from excessive incarceration to infringement of personal liberties.
“To me, the important issue is that we have the right to choose what we put in our bodies,” he said.
Additionally, he believes prohibition has driven up use and created a black market economy for the drug. The legalization in Colorado has enabled sale and use of the marijuana to be conducted by law abiding citizens instead of criminals, he said.
“A lot of evidence suggests it can do more good than harm,” he said of the drug.
Ohio Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, said she thinks that Ohioans should be given the option to decide for themselves how they feel about marijuana legalization.
“Putting the issue on the ballot would be giving the people of Ohio the chance to say what they have to say about it. I think it would be interesting to see how a vote like that would go now that people have seen the beginnings of what happened in Colorado,” she said.
While it looks as though recreational legalization is out for 2014, at least two Ohio groups are gathering signatures to put medical marijuana issues on the November ballot.