From T-shirts to the State House: Ohio support for medical marijuana is more than grassroots

CINCINNATI - When Ohio Rep. Bob Hagan’s mother was undergoing cancer treatment, he asked her if she needed help with the pain.

“I said to my mother, who had taken some radiation, ‘Mom, I understand that radiation can be difficult, it diminishes your appetite, and they say that marijuana may help.’ She just looked at me and said, ‘Of all of my 14 kids, I knew that you’d be the one to offer and you’d be the one to find it if I needed it.’”

Although his mother, who died in 2009, decided that she didn’t need marijuana, Hagan (D-Youngstown) became a chief proponent in the General Assembly of legalizing it in Ohio.

“It’s extremely important for so many people who are suffering from pain and illnesses,” he said. “I would rather people who are in pain have that pain alleviated by something that actually does alleviate the pain instead of all the pharmaceuticals that most of them end up getting hooked on.”

Tide of support rising?

Proponents of legalization have kept the fire lit under the issue for decades, and it’s finally beginning to pay off for them. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reports that 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws permitting medical use, and two of those—Colorado and Washington—passed measures in the past year allowing recreational use of marijuana.

While votes piling up for legalization in other states might be changing some minds, people such as Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent who switched his position on the issue in August, might also be a strong influence.

Gupta—who wrote an article in Time magazine in 2009, “Why I Would Vote No on Pot”—spent a year working on a documentary called “Weed.” He came away from that research apologizing for not looking at “papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research,” and being “too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis.”

More people also are getting involved at the grass-roots level. Wallace Tucker, 29, a photographer and graphic designer in Cincinnati, began selling $20 T-shirts in support of marijuana legalization in October. Part of the profits goes to advertising to raise awareness, and the rest goes into producing more shirts.

“I know a lot of people who have glaucoma and health issues,” he said, describing why he decided to get involved. “I also have friends who are addicted to pills and have passed away because of pills. Pill addiction is very, very strong.”

Tucker sold more than 100 shirts in the first month—he said pop singer Kanye West has one—and that was before he had his website  fully up and running.

“I’m not an adamant smoker myself, but if I have the chance to help someone else, to say it’s up to you, it’s your choice to make your own decision to partake in this or not, I feel it’s my responsibility to do it,” he said. “I want to get the word out and help people.”

The Colorado case

Hagan said an oil derived from the marijuana plant is being used in Colorado to stop or severely diminish seizures in children and epileptic adults. On Nov. 18, he was invited by a constituent whose grandson is a focus of a bill that was introduced that day in Pennsylvania by two senators—a conservative and a liberal—to allow medicinal use of marijuana.

The five-year-old boy, Cameron, has frequent seizures, and his parents plan to move the family to Colorado to get him treatment that is currently illegal in their home state.

Cameron’s cocktail of medications—designed to help control his seizures—make him virtually unresponsive, his parents say.

“If they saw this little Cameron, this little 5½-year-old who inside that body was once an incredibly active young boy no longer able to hold even his head up, and probably having five, eight, 10 seizures a day, they might change their minds,” Hagan said of marijuana opponents.

Where’s the science?

Not so fast, opponents say.

Marcie Seidel, executive director of the Drug-Free Action Alliance in Columbus, said legalizing drugs by legislation or referendum “is not how we do medicine in our country.”

“We do medicine in a very formalized, a very methodical, research-based way, and that’s through the FDA process,” she said. “You and I have never voted on an antibiotic or an anti-histamine or a painkiller. We just don’t do that because we don’t have the knowledge or the research to back up that what we are doing will not cause harm.”

The Drug-Free Action Alliance’s statewide mission is to focus on prevention of substance abuse. And that includes all substances, both legal and illegal.

“There may, in fact, be a component or components in marijuana that can be isolated out—much as we do with components in opium that gives us morphine—and then refined and put in a proper delivery system,” she said. “If it went through the proper research, and it does what it says it’s supposed to do, we would be for that.”

Seidel said it’s important that a medication is standard: “What you get in Minnesota is the same as what

you get in Ohio is the same as what you get in California,” and that it has the same components, the same purity, the same dosage, the same list of side effects and the same list of interactions with other drugs and foods and lifestyle choices.

“That’s the way medicine works in the United States, and that’s the way it should work in this case as well,” she said about the medical marijuana push. “I don’t want to make anybody who is having difficulty with health problems or difficulty with symptoms, for it to be problematic for them. I just want to make sure we do it safely.”

States vs. federal government

Seidel said there's a problem with the emerging patchwork of marijuana laws around the country. They not only differ, but the states are in conflict with federal law, which, under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 , classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, right beside heroin, LSD and other drugs. (Cocaine is on the Schedule II list.)

The U.S. Department of Justice in August basically said it would turn a blind eye to Washington and Colorado on recreational use. It said it would not sue to block the new laws, and it identified eight enforcement areas in which prosecutors should focus, including preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors and disallowing the diversion of the drug in states where it is legal to those where it is not.

“It’s a mess,” Seidel said. “No one really knows quite what’s going on. It depends on the whim of whomever at whatever time, whether the feds are going to come in and crack down or lighten up.”

By any other name

Pot. Grass. Mary Jane. Weed. Acapulco gold. Reefer. Indica.

Those are some of the most popular of dozens of names that people use for marijuana, which comes from the plant Cannabis sativa. The cannabis plant contains almost 500 compounds, one of which is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient that produces the high or soothing effects that marijuana users experience. Typically, the drug will contain 3 percent (low quality) to 15 percent THC.

Also well-known is hemp, which is a different strain of the cannabis plant and contains very little THC, in the range of 0.01 percent to 0.03 percent. It produces dietary seeds, milk, oils and fibers for paper or clothing, as well as other things.

A Gallup poll released in August found that 38 percent of Americans have tried marijuana. That figure has remained fairly stable for the past three decades; in 1985, it was 33 percent. At the beginning of the poll in 1969, only 4 percent of Americans admitted trying marijuana.

Decades of controversy

In Ohio, Hagan introduced two proposals earlier this year: one that would legalize marijuana for medical purposes and another that calls for a statewide vote on the legalization and taxation of marijuana. So far, he has gotten just one hearing, but he says he will work hard during his final year in the legislature (he’s term-limited in the House) to get lawmakers behind the effort.

Hagan admits that he’s a strong progressive and that he’s having a hard time getting conservative colleagues to sign on. He said many will admit privately that they would want marijuana for a loved one who is suffering pain, but they are afraid to take that position publicly.

He also would like to see the medical community come around on the issue.

“It’s embarrassing that we have one of the greatest research universities in the world at Ohio State and one of the premier health-care facilities in the Cleveland Clinic, yet there’s not one study being done on medical marijuana,” he said.

Public opinion has evolved dramatically on legalization. The long-running Gallup poll found in October that for the first time, a strong majority of Americans say marijuana should be legalized—58 percent, compared with 12 percent at the start of tracking in 1969.

That was the year that Hagan, 64, said he first tried marijuana. He had been drafted for the Vietnam War but because he had a couple of medical issues, he was deferred.

“So I smoked pot awhile, and I grew to feel uncomfortable with it and didn’t like it. The people I ran around with back them, I could see a division—those that drank heavily, those that liked to listen to music and smoke pot and those who went in another direction that ended up shooting up heroin. I saw a marked difference in the use in those days, and it was not very comforting.”

To this day, he sees those divisions among users as proof that marijuana is not necessarily a gateway drug, as some opponents claim.

“There are millions and millions of people in Ohio who smoke pot,” Hagan said. “There are not millions and millions of crack addicts. There are not millions and millions of heroin addicts.”

Seidel, on the other hand, said that while there’s not much hard data confirming that marijuana leads to use of other drugs, there is anecdotal evidence.

“We

were with a director of a treatment facility at an event not long ago,” she said. “He has an inpatient facility, and most of the beds in his facility are filled with people struggling with addiction to drugs. And he said almost every person, to a person, says they started with marijuana.”

Seidel said studies show that one in 11 marijuana users will grow addicted to it, and for those who start use at 15 years or younger, one in six will become addicted.

“If this passes, it really does change the landscape in Ohio,” she said.

The fiscal argument

NORML says enforcement of anti-marijuana laws costs taxpayers an estimated $10 billion a year, including about 750,000 arrests—a much higher number than arrests for violent crimes (521,000). About 86 percent of the marijuana-related arrests are for possession.

Not only is there a cost for enforcement, but there’s a cost for incarceration as well, proponents say.

“Let’s legalize it, and tax the crap out of it, and put the money toward stadiums and roads and everything,” Tucker said.

Connect with WCPO Contributor Bill Ferguson Jr. on Twitter: @bfergusonjr

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