Ohio marijuana town hall draws hundreds, questions, lively debate

Hundreds show up for marijuana forum in Dayton, lots of questions

On Nov. 3, Ohioans will decide whether marijuana, once cultivated in the U.S. but made completely illegal in 1970, will again grow in Ohio.


Interest in legalizing pot has steadily increased over the last several decades, and a 330-plus overflow town hall forum crowd — some holding signs in support —was testament Wednesday night.

Doug Berman, an Ohio State law professor and panelist, said the public’s attitude has shifted under state politicians’ feet.

“It’s been very hard to get serious people to take this issue seriously,” Berman said. “Particularly I find it disconcerting elected officials seem eager to ignore, or at times make jokes, about the very serious issue of marijuana reform even as more and more citizens, more and more voters, young and old, healthy and sick, keep saying in poll after poll … they are eager to have a significant policy discussion.”

A Quinnipiac University poll in April 2015 found 52 percent of Ohio voters support allowing adults to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use and 84 percent support allowing medical marijuana.

Ian James, the executive director of ResponsibleOhio, the group behind Issue 3, said marijuana will help alleviate needless physical suffering, free the criminal justice system to take care of more pressing problems, and the taxes collected will allow local governments to “fill potholes with pot money.”

James said he’s “95 percent confident” Issue 3 will pass.

The liveliest exchanges of the evening came between James and Chris Kershner, vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, who was there representing the chamber-created Dayton Regional Employers Against Marijuana, or DREAM.

DREAM and others are fighting Issue 3 saying the plan is akin to a monopoly that will benefit only the small group of investors who control the 10 sites specified in the constitutional amendment. The concern over a potential monopoly pressured state legislators into a countervailing measure, Issue 2, that would prohibit any amendment that would place a “monopoly, oligopoly or cartel” in the Ohio Constitution.

At one point Kershner held the amendment up toward James and told him he’d proposed the wrong amendment if James was so concerned about medical marijuana.

“That’s not the right way to govern your state no matter what the issue is, marijuana or not,” Kershner said, adding $1 billion could flow to James and “his 10 rich friends who wrote this amendment.”

The forum, Marijuana: Ohio Decides, was sponsored by the Dayton Daily News, WHIO Radio, Newscenter 7 and the League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area, and broadcast live on AM1290 and News 95.7 WHIO.

Already, 23 states and the District of Columbia allow people to use marijuana for medical purposes. Four states – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, along with the District of Columbia – allow marijuana to be used recreationally. Ohio would become the first state to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use at the same time.

ResponsibleOhio has said it will spend an estimated $25 million campaigning to legalize marijuana. It’s pitted against a long and growing list of health organizations and businesses groups opposed, which are now raising money to fight back in the 40 days until the election.

Advocates for marijuana say legalization will sprout new businesses and bring in millions in tax revenue for local governments. ResponsibleOhio estimates pot will generate $1 billion annually.

Medical concerns

While businesses are concerned about complications legal marijuana may bring to employment law, health professionals are concerned about ill effects legalization may have on Ohio’s children. Dr. Gary LeRoy of Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine said edibles made to look like candy can pose a significant risk to children.

ResponsibleOhio is pushing marijuana as a natural, safe alternative that helps people with chronic pain, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical conditions. The group is currently featuring an ad a young girl whose family moved out of state to get marijuana.

Panelist Tonya Davis said she spends $1,200 a month on what’s essentially a legal, synthetic marijuana pill prescribed to her by a doctor.

“My doctor would rather see me use cannabis,” Davis said.

Davis also said she’s involved with several other campaigns that may put a marijuana issue on Ohio’s ballot in 2016 if Issue 3 doesn’t pass.

Rachael Capasso, 33, of Dayton who suffers from chronic abdominal pain was seated in the crowd.

“I’m interested in alternatives to the meds that have bad side effects. So I’m interested on a personal level.”

Capasso said she’s never tried marijuana and would be concerned about how it reacts with her current medication.

“But if I can get more information and talk to my doctors about it I would like to try it.”

With both Issue 2 and Issue 3 on the ballot, which amendment would take precedence may well be decided in court, Berman said.

Ballot confusion

“All I can say with absolute confidence is, it’s going to be good for my law students who will maybe have jobs for years to come as we sort this out,” he said. But I do think we are on a collision course if both issues pass.”

ResponsibleOhio was criticized at the forum for cooking up “Buddie,” a super hero-like mascot that some believe sends young people the wrong message. James said the real threat to kids are drug dealers.

“Drug dealers don’t card kids,” James said.

Issue 3 would also allow adults ages 21 and older could grow, possess and share with other adults up to four flowering plants and up to eight ounces. Home growing would be limited to indoor areas inaccessible to minors.

If the issue becomes law, it would result in the formation of a Ohio Marijuana Control Commission to license test sites and commercial facilities and regulate the industry.

The moderator for the discussion was Larry Hansgen, Miami Valley’s Morning News anchor on WHIO Radio. Newscenter 7’s James Brown and Dayton Daily News Columbus Bureau reporter Laura Bischoff questioned the panelists.

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