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Marijuana issues light debate

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For all that’s knowable about the two marijuana issues to be put to voters this Nov. 3, there is an equal amount of information that is unknown. That was one take-away from the local marijuana forum that engaged about 150 Yellow Springs and regional participants at Antioch University Midwest last Thursday, Oct. 15.

For example, State Issue 3 proposes to legalize marijuana use for those aged 21 and over, but it’s not clear how legalization for adults affects availability and consumption among minors. Issue 3 also proposes to limit the cultivation and sale of marijuana to 10 preselected grow sites with predetermined investors, but how exactly distribution will be controlled and industry profits shared is not well known. Further, State Issue 2 proposes to prohibit the marijuana monopoly that Issue 3 would create, but whether two opposing amendments can both be approved and go into effect is also unknown.

Participants were pensive at times during the forum, rowdy at others, with the most vocal heavily favoring legalization and nearly drowning out the opposition. Participants might not have changed their minds, but most undoubtedly left knowing a bit more about the two ballot issues. Local organizers former journalist Ken Bode and attorney Ellis Jacobs introduced the issues before opening the floor to speakers Chris Kershner of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, which opposes legalizing marijuana, and Brice Keller of Responsible Ohio/Yes on 3, which supports legalization. Moderators Lewis Wallace of WYSO and Laura Bischoff of the Dayton Daily News shared additional information from their reporting on the issues. And local resident Mary White, who teaches medical ethics and public health at Wright State University, presented research on some of the correlations between marijuana legalization and public health outcomes.

Background on the issues
For context, according to Jacobs, Issue 3 proposes to legalize marijuana use for those 21 and over and medical marijuana for all, as well as legalize limited home-grown marijuana. The measure also limits marijuana cultivation and sales to 10 predetermined sites, whose investors have already been identified, and up to 1,100 controlled marijuana retail outlets. Operations would be managed by a Marijuana Control Commission of seven people appointed by the state governor.

Issue 2, Jacobs said, was created by three-fifths of both houses of the Ohio legislature “specifically to render Issue 3 inoperable.” It also specifies that for future citizen-generated initiatives deemed by the state ballot board to be in violation of the Ohio Constitution, voters would be asked to decide first, whether they agree to violate the constitution, and second, whether they approve said initiative.

Marijuana vs. monopolies
For Issue 3, Keller explained that Responsible Ohio has long been interested in legalizing marijuana but has found it difficult to get the state legislature to approve a proposal (he later cited a current medical marijuana-only bill that’s getting “no action” in the state legislature.) Because approval for a citizen-initiated proposal requires significant capital to gather the requisite number of signatures, the group chose to raise money by first gathering investors for particular grow sites and tying the business venture to the ballot issue. The initial investment of $20 million allowed Responsible Ohio to collect the 300,000 valid signatures necessary (out of a raw 1 million gathered) to get the issue on the ballot.

The initiative is timely, Keller said, as it will reduce the criminalization of marijuana (he cited FBI statistics that about 700,000 marijuana-possession arrests were made in the U.S. in 2014) and allow citizens to “get together and vindicate their right” to grow and smoke the cannabis plant.

On the other hand, Kershner of the Dayton Chamber, pointed out that legalizing marijuana, a psychotropic drug, includes not just cigarettes but other products containing marijuana such as edible candies, which would especially appeal to youth. Issue 3 also creates an unconstitutional business monopoly for 10 specific investors, much like the casino initiative did in Ohio.

“Our constitution cannot be bought again,” he said.

But Issue 2 would also make citizen-initiated amendements more difficult in the future, according to Bischoff, who offered an opinion that “we need citizen-initiated amendments,” which are responsible for reforms in Ohio such as the indoor smoking ban and tying minimum wage to inflation. If Issue 2 passed, those grass-roots initiatives would have a harder time finding a spot on the statewide ballot, she said.
In response to a question from Bischoff, Keller explained that Responsible Ohio started its proposal without provisions for home grow and then added it to the final amendment, in large part because of the group’s conviction that “whole plant access should be a right nation-wide.” Home cultivation would also support the artisinal development of seeds that could be sold to the pre-approved cultivars in the future, and it would also help to change “the definition of criminality” associated with marijuana.
Public health impact

Adding context to the conversation, Dr. White presented data on the health effects of marijuana use and potential public health effects of legalizing the drug. Most of her information came from 2012 and 2015 studies by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

She prefaced her talk thus: “Ken had warned me that it might get hot in here, and it certainly is,” she said. “I am not here to take that heat.”

According to White, “it is well established that the adverse effects of prolonged marijuana use include addiction, impaired cognitive function and increased risks for anxiety and depression.” Marijuana use is also “consistently correlated with increased risks of motor vehicle accidents,” she said, adding that “all these risks are greater when use is initiated before the age of 25” (before the brain is fully developed).

Data from Colorado, which legalized medical marijuana in 2000 and recreational marijuana for those over 21 in 2013, suggest that legalization has changed public health. In Colorado by 2013, for example, marijuana use by adults ages 18–25 had increased to 29 percent — above the national average of 19 percent — while for youth ages 12­–17 marijuana use was 56 percent higher than the national average. And in Denver since 2013, the city police have noted a roughly 100 percent increase in the number of marijuana-related driving arrests.

In behavior-related studies, since 2013, Colorado has seen a 34 percent increase in school suspensions and expulsions due to marijuana, and a 35 percent increase in overall drug-related youth referrals to law enforcement.

“This is the most concerning to me personally…that, I find deeply troubling,” White said.

As for drug enforcement, marijuana-related inter-state drug seizures increased almost 600 percent in Colorado from 2009 to 2014.

“Here are my questions,” White stated during the forum. “Can we control where the grown marijuana goes? What is the motivation behind Responsible Ohio — is it to decriminalize [marijuana]? — we can decriminalize it without legalizing it in this way… Is it a public health goal of regulating the quality and the potency? … Is it for tax revenue? Is it to reward the owners of these 10 franchises? Can we control use by children?… and what is the message that is sent by legalization to our kids?”

Views from the floor
Other Yellow Springers had plenty of questions as well. Judith Ezekiel voiced concern about penalties for underage consumers, which Bischoff said would likely be determined by the to-be-created Marijuana Control Commission.

Gary Zaremsky asked why Responsible Ohio went for a constitutional amendment versus simple legislation. According to Keller, the group needed a proposal that would withstand strong legislative opposition, including a clause that prohibits placing undue burden on the implementation of Issue 3 itself.

Luan Heit said she was conflicted and might support a general relaxing of the current marijuana laws, but not at the expense of free enterprise. Annabel Welsh asked if marijuana is legalized how employers could enforce a drug-free workplace. Kershner agreed that many in the business community are concerned about being forced to allow their employees to use marijuana at work, though his response was cut short by an oppositional audience asking him to “back off” and “give up the mic!”

There was an undeniably emotional side to the evening.

“Everybody keeps talking about 10 businesses that are going to make a bunch of money — this is to me about freedom,” one participant said to enthusiastic applause. “It’s unfair to not legalize for recreation; it’s cruel not to legalize it for medical.”

Another unidentified speaker voiced frustration over wanting to legalize marijuana but not wanting to support unfair profiteering by an oppressive, powerful cartel.

“My concern is, fundamentally, for the past 40 years, tens of thousands of people have been placed in jail and lives destroyed disproportionately in the minority community, and now a small cartel of rich white boys are taking over because they see the possibilities.”

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