September 2, 2014

Medina
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Group pushing for marijuana legalization in Ohio

Colorado consumers have been able to purchase marijuana for recreational use at stores across the state since Jan. 1 — and Washington state will follow suit this year.

Cher Neufer thinks the Buckeye State should join the club — despite stiff opposition.

Neufer founded Ohio’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in 2001. The group’s goal is to get marijuana legalized for adults — both medicinally and recreationally — and to give state government millions of dollars in sales taxes along the way.

Harrisville Township resident Cher Neufer, 66, founded the Ohio chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in 2001. She advocates for the legalization of marijuana and its responsible use. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY NICK GLUNT)

Harrisville Township resident Cher Neufer, 66, founded the Ohio chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in 2001. She advocates for the legalization of marijuana and its responsible use. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY NICK GLUNT)

“We’ve had bills introduced into the Ohio legislature every two years for eight years now,” said Neufer, 66, of Harrisville Township.

The latest legislation — House Bill 153 and House Joint Resolution 6 — push for Ohio to legalize marijuana for medicinal use and for recreational use.

The resolution — introduced in May and modeled after the Colorado amendment — would grant adults age 21 and older the ability to possess one ounce of marijuana for personal recreational use and to grow up to six indoor plants without a license.

The proposal also would permit marijuana to be sold but only by licensed vendors and customers would have to show a state ID, such as a driver’s license.

Under Ohio law now, possessing less than 100 grams — about 3½ ounces — is a minor misdemeanor and up to 200 grams is a fourth-degree misdemeanor. Marijuana possession becomes a felony at 200 grams. Cultivating marijuana can be a misdemeanor or a felony based on a variety of factors.

Municipalities can have stiffer penalties. In the city of Medina, for example, possessing any marijuana is at least a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by a mandatory three days in jail and a maximum of six months because of a 1989 ordinance.

Neufer said the proposed legislation would keep many things unchanged.

Driving under the influence of marijuana and underage possession would remain illegal.

Workplaces would retain the ability to screen workers for marijuana and the proposed legislation allows voters in municipalities and counties to ban recreational marijuana use.

Landlords could bar tenants from growing marijuana. Legal marijuana grown in Ohio would not be allowed to leave the state and could not be sold over the Internet.

“It’s not a free-for-all,” Neufer said. “It would be regulated just like beer and wine, but with even more restrictions. You can brew your own wine at home, but you can’t sell it unless you have a license.”

Neufer and the organization she represents — NORML, for short — advocate marijuana’s legalization, but she said users should be responsible just like when using alcohol.

“We agree it’s not for kids —just like alcohol and tobacco aren’t for kids,” she said. “And we agree that anything that’s impairing you shouldn’t be used at work or while you’re driving.”

Although Neufer wants to see marijuana legalized, she said the drug is no longer part of her lifestyle. She said she used marijuana during and after college in the 1960s and ’70s. In 2001, she had drug possession charges dropped after completing an intervention program.

Rep. Bob Hagan

Rep. Bob Hagan

State Rep. Bob Hagan, D-Youngstown, the chief sponsor of H.B. 153 and the resolution, first introduced a medical marijuana bill in 2005 as a senator.

“I want medical marijuana to pass through the legislature so we can control it and regulate it, and tax it if we can,” he said.

Under the Ohio legislation, the state would reap an initial 15 percent tax on all marijuana sales through 2018, when the tax rate would be re-examined.

There’s no estimate how much tax money could result from marijuana legalization in Ohio, Hagan said. In Colorado, the tax is 25 percent and lawmakers estimate it should bring in $70 million in taxes annually.

Hagan said the state would benefit financially not only from taxes, but also from reduced prison inmates and from police not “wasting resources” catching marijuana users.

“When you have police officers pulling kids over and finding a bag of pot in the car, it’s ridiculous to be sending them to jail,” he said. “We should be going after the users and pushers of dangerous drugs.”

Both pieces of legislation have had hearings over the spring and summer, but Hagan said he doesn’t expect them to get to the House floor for a vote because of opposition from House Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina.

“It’s hard to get Bill Batchelder to move on this,” Hagan said. “Put it this way: He’s not very high on the subject.”

Hagan said that’s frustrating because so many people support marijuana legalization.

A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found 52 percent of Americans support legalization for recreational use, and a survey by the University of Cincinnati Institute for Policy Research found in 2010 that 73 percent of Ohioans supported medical marijuana.

“You’d think the legislature would act based on popular opinion,” Hagan said.

Hagan isn’t the only Democrat supporting legalization. President Barack Obama in a recent interview with The New Yorker gave his take on the issue.

“As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life,” Obama said. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

Smoking marijuana is “not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy,” Obama said.

Obama’s administration has given states permission to experiment with marijuana regulation, though its use is still illegal on federal property.

Critics of the new laws raise concerns about public health and law enforcement, asking whether wide availability of the drug will lead to more underage drug use, more cases of driving while high and more crime.

“Marijuana is a drug, and all drugs affect brain functioning, particularly for youth, because their brains are still developing — sometimes to the age of 25,” said Brian Nowak, director of the Medina County Drug Abuse Commission.

Though marijuana reform would still ban the drug for minors, Nowak said that doesn’t stop minors right now from getting their hands on alcohol and tobacco.

“You’re always going to have those stores that don’t check IDs and those people who buy it for young people,” he said.

Nowak said legalizing marijuana likely would encourage more young people to use the drug. A 2011 survey by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America found that fewer high school seniors compared to 2003 thought there was a great risk of harm from smoking marijuana.

“We know tobacco and alcohol are legal, and if marijuana was too, the message that would spread is that those things are OK and not as harmful as other drugs,” Nowak said. “But there are potential dangers in them, even in alcohol and tobacco.”

He said the greatest danger is drugs’ ability to cause dependency.

“While it is true that alcohol and tobacco addiction rates are higher than that of marijuana, this is the case in large part because they are legal substances and the stigma associated with them has been removed,” Nowak said.

“Doing the same for marijuana will only ensure that addiction rates continue to rise.”

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported in a 2008 study that children and teenagers nationwide are six times more likely to be in drug treatment for marijuana than all other illegal drugs combined.

Nowak said that’s alarming and argued society’s growing acceptance of marijuana is partly to blame.

“Legislation seeking to decriminalize and/or legalize marijuana will reduce the perception of harm associated with its use,” Nowak said. “This is not the message we can afford to send to America’s youth.”

Still, he said it was valuable to have the discussion over whether to legalize the drug.

“I think it’s important for people to be informed on this issue,” Nowak said, “because it’s one that’s not going away.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Nick Glunt at (330) 721-4048 or nglunt@medina-gazette.com.

MARIJUANA USE IN MEDINA COUNTY

• Four percent of county residents in 2012 reported using marijuana in the past six months. Of those people, about a fourth said they used the drug every day and about three-fifths said they used it less than once a month.
• Twelve percent of adults with incomes less than $25,000 reported they used marijuana in the past six months, opposed to just 3 percent with incomes greater than $25,000.
• Seventeen percent of the county’s high school students in 2012 reported using marijuana in the past month. Statewide, 24 percent of students reported using the drug, and 23 percent reported it nationwide.

SOURCE: Living Well Medina County Community Assessment Survey of 2012

MARIJUANA-RELATED CRIMES IN MEDINA COUNTY

• Of the 290 cases investigated by the Medina County Drug Task Force last year, 60 were marijuana-related and resulted in 51 arrests.
• Of the arrests, 35 were for trafficking and the rest were for possession and cultivation. In addition, 22 had drug charges related to another kind of drug as well.

SOURCE: Gary Hubbard, director, Medina County Drug Task Force