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Is 2016 the year for medical marijuana legalization?
Is 2016 the year for medical marijuana legalization?(Photo: Getty Images)

COLUMBUS — After Ohio voters resoundingly defeated an ill-formed effort to legalize marijuana last fall, everyone started talking about “doing something” on medical marijuana.

The idea was popular with voters: As many as 90 percent of Ohioans say patients should be allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes approved by a doctor. And 23 states already allow some form of medical marijuana. But state lawmakers had rejected attempt after attempt to legalize it, and federal authorities still list marijuana among the most dangerous drugs.

Even now, with lawmakers mulling a bill and two groups aiming for the November ballot, legalizing medical marijuana is far from assured.

If you agree that medical marijuana should be legal in Ohio — not a given among Republicans or Democrats — there are dozens of other questions to debate: Should patients be allowed to grow marijuana in their backyards? Which health conditions should be covered? How is it taxed? What happens if someone shows up to work stoned?

Any one of these hot-button topics could derail an effort from bipartisan lawmakers to tackle medical marijuana. And then, there’s timing. Lawmakers are scheduled for two months of work before breaking until after the November election. Groups collecting signatures to place medical marijuana on the fall ballot have until early July to hit the required number of 305,591, drawn from at least 44 counties.

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Gov. John Kasich, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, has increasingly said he is open to legalizing medical marijuana and would sign something, especially if it would help children suffering from seizures.

But Kasich also has repeatedly said he will rely on the advice of doctors, who haven’t explicitly told the governor that medical marijuana would help, aides say. The Ohio State Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Glaucoma Foundation and American Cancer Society all oppose legalizing medical marijuana without more research.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting from outside groups: dueling ballot initiatives are working toward the November ballot, and some legislators fear another perceived attack on the state constitution like ResponsibleOhio’s proposal last year to give the rights to grow marijuana to just 10 wealthy investors. Despite all the failings of ResponsibleOhio’s proposal, more than 1.1 million Ohioans still voted to legalize marijuana under the oligopoly.

“It’s the very possibility that the voters might foist this upon the state that might keep the legislators moving,” said Doug Berman, an Ohio State University law professor who teaches a course on marijuana policy.

If there’s a chance of legalizing medical marijuana in Ohio, one of these four groups will lead the way:

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Ohio Senate

What’s the proposal?

Sen. Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights, was the first to say he’s drafting a bill. The new proposal, which has already undergone at least one revision, would require a physician to have previous history with a patient before recommending medical marijuana. Yuko was mum on other details, saying they would likely change before the bill is introduced in the coming weeks.

“I don’t care what we do or how we do it, as long as we do it,” said Yuko, who went on a three-city tour with Sen. Dave Burke, R-Marysville, to listen to Ohioans opinions on medical marijuana.

What are its chances?

Yuko, who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, has introduced a handful of unsuccessful bills to legalize medical marijuana since 2005. He needs Republican support to pass anything in the GOP-controlled Ohio Senate, and his Democratic colleagues aren’t necessarily sold either. Lawyers, in particular, are concerned about the repercussions of legalizing a drug that the federal government still bars, Yuko said. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision not to wade into cross-border marijuana disputes might ease some fears about federal government interference.

Burke, a pharmacist by trade, is even more skeptical. He won’t support anything that legalizes recreational marijuana, allows marijuana users to drive impaired or creates a new, expensive department to regulate marijuana. Burke said he’s working with Yuko to present an option that everyone can agree on. But breaks for the primaries and Easter have meant Burke hasn’t talked with GOP colleagues yet to see where they stand on medical marijuana.

“If there is zero Republican support, nothing is going to pass,” Burke said.

Ohio House

What’s the proposal?

Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, and his 14-member task force have listened to patients, police officers, physicians and business managers talk about medical marijuana and whether Ohio is ready for it. The sixth and final hearing is March 31 at the Ohio Statehouse. Until then, Schuring isn’t talking about what’s next.

Still, fellow task force member, Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, expects “something” will come out of the talks. Many lawmakers and advocates would prefer a legislative solution over amending the state constitution, because adjusting state laws is easier and cheaper, Ramos said. For example, when Columbus wanted to move its casino to the other side of town, voters across Ohio had to approve it.

That “something” could be a ballot initiative or a proposed law, but whatever is introduced will likely be limited in scope. Republicans find cannabis oil or pills more palatable than smoking, but it’s unclear whether that would satisfy medical marijuana advocates.

What are its chances?

House and Senate lawmakers took different routes in reviewing medical marijuana, but will need to come together if they want to pass anything quickly. Don’t expect the issue to fall on party lines either, Ramos said.

“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue,” he said.

Marijuana Policy Project 

What’s the proposal?

Marijuana Policy Project is one of the Goliaths of legalizing marijuana across the United States. The nonprofit organization spearheaded legalizing marijuana in Colorado and passing medical marijuana in nearly a dozen states, including Michigan. Ohio is one of more than a half dozen states the group is targeting in 2016. The Buckeye State wasn’t a top priority for the nationwide group until after ResponsibleOhio’s failed initiative last year that got Ohioans and lawmakers talking about marijuana, spokesman Mason Tvert said.

The group’s Ohio operation, Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, has proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow individuals older than 21 to grow up to six marijuana plants with a recommendation from their doctor. Those younger than 18 could use marijuana with a parent’s permission and a physician’s approval.

Those who wish to grow marijuana commercially would apply for a license. Only 15 larger marijuana farms would be allowed in the state and they would pay a $500,000 fee. Smaller operations would pay a $5,000 fee. Local officials and voters would have some say in where dispensaries could set up shop.

What are its chances?

Marijuana Policy Project crossed the first hurdle Friday when Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine approved the group’s petition language. Now, the state’s bipartisan ballot board must decide whether the proposal is one or multiple issues. From there, Marijuana Policy Project has until July 6 to collect valid signatures.

The group would need professional, paid signature collectors, who would shoot for more than the minimum number because at least some of the signatures will be invalid or duplicates, said Carlis McDerment, director of Ohio Medical Cannabis Care. His group is backing off the race for the November ballot after being rejected four times by DeWine.

If Marijuana Policy Project has enough signatures, the group would need millions of dollars more for advertising and campaigning. ResponsibleOhio raised about $20 million for its failed effort — a massive number that most initiatives don’t need. But mounting a campaign in a presidential election year in Ohio still isn’t cheap.

But if there’s a group well-funded and organized enough to make the November ballot on a tight schedule, it’s the Marijuana Policy Project.

Would Marijuana Policy Project hold off to see if lawmakers act?

Sure. That would save Marijuana Policy Project millions that it could spend in another state. “But we’re not just going to take them at their word,” Tvert said.

Grassroots Ohio 

What’s the proposal?

Grassroots Ohio was formed by disgruntled members of Legalize Ohio 2015 concerned about Marijuana Policy Project’s approach.

“This initiative is very much ResponsibleOhio all over again,” Athens attorney Don Wirtshafter said of that approach. “Instead of 10 monopolies, they are enshrining 15 monopolies,” he said, referencing the proposal’s limit on the number of large marijuana growers in the state.

Grassroots Ohio is taking a two-pronged approach. First, place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to legalize medical marijuana for adults older than 18 to grow and use. It also would permit farmers to grow industrial hemp. Second, ask voters to pass a proposal to regulate and tax medical marijuana, which would be sent to lawmakers for their approval. That would keep language in the constitution simple, Wirtshafter said.

What are its chances?

Grassroots Ohio must pass DeWine, the ballot board and the signature collection by July as well. Plus, Grassroots Ohio and Marijuana Policy Project will be in a war for signatures. Wirtshafter said it helps that his group’s proposal is two pages compared to Marijuana Policy Project’s 30-plus pages. But Marijuana Policy Project would have the nationwide recognition and fundraising that Grassroots Ohio will not.

Discussion

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