MARIETTA - In November, Colorado and Washington both passed referendums allowing for recreational use of marijuana by adults over the age of 21.
At the same time, Connecticut and Massachusetts passed measures legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes, making them the 17th and 18th states to do so. Washington, D.C., also has a law legalizing the drug medicinally.
But despite the expansion of the marijuana reform movement, it is yet to be seen if the changes have had any effect on Ohioans' perception of the drug.
Photo by Jasmine Rogers
Deputy Dave Tornes of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office displays bags of marijuana kept in evidence by the Sheriff’s Office.
"We consider it a gateway drug," said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.
Mincks said that legalization of marijuana, whether medicinally or recreationally, in Ohio would lead to more problems for law enforcement officials.
"I've never talked to an addict who went from zero to being an addict. They went through a progression and it started with marijuana or alcohol," he said.
Breakdown of Ohioans supporting full marijuana legalization
18 to 29: 59 percent
30 to 45: 38 percent
46 to 64: 38 percent
65 and over: 12 percent
Males: 46 percent
Females: 28 percent
Less than $20,000: 35 percent
$20,000-$39,999: 45 percent
$40,000-$59,999: 40 percent
$60,000 and over: 35 percent
Some high school: 48 percent
High school grad: 38 percent
Some college: 31 percent
College grad: 35 percent
By religious preference:
Protestant: 34 percent
Catholic: 34 percent
By party identification:
Democrat: 46 percent
Independent: 47 percent
Republican: 22 percent
Overall: 37 percent
Source: 2009 University of Cincinnati Institute for Policy Research poll
However, there are those that disagree with that theory, including the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that says it promotes alternatives to current drug policy that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.
That organization argues that studies have found marijuana to be the most popular illegal drug in the United States and therefore, people who have used less popular drugs like heroin or cocaine are likely to have also used marijuana. The group also cites two U.S. Department of Health and Human Services surveys on drug abuse in the nation, which conclude that the majority of marijuana users don't use other illicit drugs.
Mincks said he also thinks legalizing marijuana still would not necessarily do away with the black market for the drug.
"It's going to create an even larger market for people in Mexico," he said.
But there is evidence that perceptions are shifting, if not for complete recreational legalization, at least to medicinal legalization.
Tonya Davis, 49, of Kettering, has been leading the push for medicinal legalization for the past 10 years.
"I've been involved in every part of the process from Senate Bill 74 to House Bill 214," said Davis.
Those bills were introduced in 2006 and 2012, respectively.
Davis suffers from pseudohypoparathyroidism, a genetic disorder in which the body fails to respond to parathyroid hormones. It means that Davis' body refuses to absorb the nutrients she needs, causing her a multitude of problems.
Recently her doctors told her they found massive calcium deposits on her brain and there is nothing they can do except treat the symptoms and try to keep her comfortable.
"I don't have a criminal record. I am not suffering for drug addiction or mental illness. Why should I be denied the same rights people can have in 18 other states and Washington, D.C.?" she asked.
Davis has jumped through every hoop that legislators have asked, she said. She has brought them doctors, constituents and legislators on both sides of the aisle that favor the legalization of medicinal marijuana.
There are two different ways of legalizing marijuana, whether medicinally or recreationally, in Ohio. The governor can sign a legalization bill into effect if it is first passed by both the Ohio House and Ohio Senate.
Additionally, if legalization support groups collect 385,247 signatures, they can put the issue on the ballot as a Constitutional amendment, and Ohioans can vote to approve the change.
In a 2009 poll conducted by the University of Cincinnati's Institute for Policy Research, 73 percent of Ohioans said they strongly or at least somewhat favored the legalization of medicinal cannabis.
Marietta resident Kelly Holland has mixed feelings on the subject, but thinks she would support the legalization if it were only for medicinal purposes and well regulated by the state.
"I'm a nurse, so I do see the medicinal advantages. For chemo patients, it helps them keep somewhat of an appetite and maintain their weight," she said.
Holland also pointed out that the government could tax the drug and have a sizable revenue source.
On the other side, Holland said she worried that the drug does have mind altering aspects and she worried that younger people could access it.
Michael Boersma, 22, of Marietta, goes one step further than the proponents of medicinal marijuana.
"I'm in favor of full legalization," he said.
The criminal prosecution of drugs is more of a drain on government resources than it is worth, he said.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nearly 1 million people are prosecuted for marijuana violations in the U.S. each year, meaning marijuana arrests comprise more than half of all drug arrests in the nation.
In addition, the government is missing out on a huge source of revenue by not allowing for the growth and sale of hemp and marijuana, said Boersma.
That positive economic impact is why a lot of people support the drug's legalization, he said.
"I know a decent number of people who do not use, and they wouldn't use even if it was legalized, but they would prefer it to be legalized," he said.
Still, the changing laws in Colorado, Washington and other states, have had no effect on many local perceptions.
"I feel it is a dangerous drug, and I feel it should be kept illegal," said 58-year-old John Heldman of St. Marys.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana use can have a variety of adverse, short- and long-term effects, especially on cardiopulmonary and mental health.
Among other things, use of the drug raises the user's heart rate, causes respiratory problems when smoked and has been linked to depression, anxiety and a lack of motivation, said NIDA.
However, marijuana is much less harmful than other illegal drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and meth, according to the institute.
"I believe marijuana for the most part is different. It is not as addicting and it does not have the major health downfalls that the other drugs do," said Boersma.
Greg Delemeester, McCoy Professor of Economics at Marietta College, said the possible economic impacts depend on how the state would tax and distribute the drug if legalized.
"You would expect that the price would go down if they were to legalize it," said Delemeester, pointing out that people would be less reliant on a black market.
However, "If they put the tax too high you could see unintended consequences such as smuggling," he said.
However, even if a black market persists, extra state revenue seems like a likely effect of legalization, he said.
If legalization were to happen in Ohio, it would most likely be the medicinal route, said Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta.
That possibility might not be too far off, said Thompson.
House Bill 214, to legalize medicinal cannabis for Ohioans, was sponsored by seven representatives, including one Republican, Lake County resident Rep. Ron Young.
"As I talk to other reps, certainly some people have an objection to any use. Some people consider it a slippery slope," Thompson said.
However, Thompson said he would be willing to give a medical legalization bill due consideration.
"Obviously we watch and see what other states are doing and it seems that it does have some value with medicinal use," he said.
Davis urged supporters of reform to print a petition at www.ohiommjballot.org and collect signatures. She also urged people to contact their representatives.
"I don't want to die knowing that I have an opportunity to access something that will help me and my government denied me access to it," said Davis.