By Jacob Espinosa
For Miami Valley Today
LIMA —This November, multiple important issues will be on the ballot for Ohioans.
Issue 2, if passed, would legalize the sale and purchase, as well as the possession and use, of cannabis for everyone over 21 years of age, and enact a 10% tax on all sales.
“We are not breaking dramatic new ground,” Professor Doug Berman of Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law said. “Twenty-three other states have fully legalized marijuana since Colorado and Washington pioneered full legalization. It’s been operational there for more than a decade so there were all sorts of expectations and worries that there would be all sorts of expectations and negative consequences, but we haven’t seen those play out in dramatic effects.”
Berman, who is also the executive director of Moritz’ Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, added that the positive consequences of legalizing cannabis have not played out dramatically either.
Advocates and detractors, however, are still firmly entrenched and split on multiple aspects of the proposal, which would see Ohio join Illinois, New York, Michigan and Minnesota as other Great Lakes states to legalize the plant, already legalized for medicinal use in the state.
Spokesperson for the Committee to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, Tom Haren, said that the reason the organization sponsored Issue 2 was as a response to states like Michigan taking advantage of the chance to regulate the cannabis industry instead of allowing it to remain a black market.
“First of all, marijuana prohibition has been a total failure,” he said. “Still today, too many people of color can have their lives devastated by even a small interaction with the criminal justice system arising out of a marijuana conviction. It’s harder to get a job, to get into college and to find housing and it’s time to correct that injustice.”
But opponents of the issue believe that the consequences of using the substance illegally are appropriate and should continue being applicable in Ohio.
“My daughter just graduated college in 2012 in Cleveland and was making her way to work in the evening when she was struck by a marijuana-impaired driver running a red light going 82 miles an hour,” Corinne LaMarca, director of Jennifer’s Messengers, said. “She was killed instantly, but he was uninjured and said he didn’t even remember driving his car.”
Jennifer’s Messengers, a campaign organized by 501c3 nonprofit Parents Opposed to Pot, is one of several groups, including Protect Ohio Workers and Families, against Issue 2, citing not just increased traffic safety concerns, but also workplace safety and health concerns.
LaMarca and other opponents, including Ohio Senator Matt Huffman (R-Lima) have cited data showing that traffic crashes involving marijuana use have increased in states like Washington and Colorado that have legalized the substance as just one example of how legalizing it can send a message of approval of not just casual use, but dangerous use.
Huffman, whose opinion has been well-documented, said that his concerns also include the threat that insurance premiums could rise and that unemployment law would need to be adjusted as well if the issue passes.
“We’ll have to do some changes to eligibility for unemployment compensation pretty quickly or it will affect insurance premiums,” he said. “There are going to be more car accidents and more accidents on the job. That’s how insurance works: They decide what the risk is, charge a premium for the losses that they’re going to pay out and then they make a profit on top of that.”
LaMarca also expressed fears about medical issues from conditions like cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome and side effects like paranoia and anxiety, as well as the differences between alcohol and cannabis.
“Some people just have a glass of wine to relax and it doesn’t make them drunk,” she said. “But when you have a joint, you are usually doing it to get high. There is a difference there and I don’t understand why somebody would want to mess with their brain chemistry for recreation.”
But Haren, a partner and chair of the cannabis law group at Frantz Ward, characterized most of these claims as debunked and misleading.
“What we’ve been trying to do is talk to voters like adults and give them facts,” he said. “We’re not trying to scare them about things that might happen. We’re asking them to look at facts from the states to see what has happened and what we know from over a decade’s worth of experience and studies.”
Haren cited studies that show that regulating the marijuana industry does not increase youth usage and that it could increase the clearance rate of criminal investigation.
“And we also know that from these regulated states that regulating the sale of marijuana does not cause any increase in traffic accidents or make the roads any more dangerous,” he said. “A lot of these talking points just don’t match the facts from the states that have already come before us.”
Haren also cited data that he said shows that cannabis helps older workers be more productive by providing an alternative to dangerous prescription drugs and opioids.
From the perspective of CMRLA, the substance is safer than alcohol since, among these points, it also does not cause overdoses.
“And again, people are using marijuana today, but they’re using it from the black market,” Haren added. “The drug dealers have a monopoly on the adult-use market and that’s what we want to change. The two biggest opponents to Issue 2 are drug dealers and Michigan dispensary owners because we’re going to transition the market away from people going to the black market or driving to Michigan.”
Proponents also cite the benefits of the proposed 10% tax, which might amount to as much as $400 mil. in revenue for the state as the industry peaks, according to Berman.
Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol advocates using 25% of this revenue toward addiction treatment and education, to go with 36% toward social equity and jobs programs, 36% toward funding dispensary host communities and 3% toward regulatory and administrative costs.
But opponents have been unmoved.
“They’re talking about a 10% tax, which is not very much when you consider what they’re putting out there and the possible harm it can do,” LaMarca said. “The only people that win are the marijuana industry. There are a lot of promises out there and they just don’t come to fruition for the states. And, even if they did, how could we put a price on our children’s lives?”
From what Berman sees, though, even if voters are opposed to legalization, failing to pass the measure would not solve any of these problems.
“How you balance those competing concerns is always the basis for a valid debate,” he said. “But it’s exactly why I think it’s so important for voters to look over the issues and try to make an informed judgment. I’m hopeful that however the vote goes, we’ll continue to try to move forward on these issues because it’s not going away. A no vote is not going to stop people from using cannabis and a yes vote isn’t going to magically ensure cannabis is used in a responsible manner until we have a perfect regulatory system.”
Berman said that both sides may have points as far as the example of traffic safety goes.
“You can find a dozen studies that say there is no problem at all and nothing changes and you can find a dozen studies that say exactly the opposite,” he said. “Occasionally, it is because of false data, but more often than not, it’s a function of a very complicated and dynamic area. My favorite example is to look at people arrested for driving while high or who get in crashes and later test positive for having marijuana in their system: It could depend on who is doing the testing and it could depend on whether the driver also has something other than marijuana in their system. How do we know that that is why they crashed or if this is someone who was going to get behind the wheel no matter what was in their system?”
Ultimately, though, Berman said that the states that have legalized cannabis have not seen dramatic impacts one way or the other.
“The experience of the states that have legalized cannabis haven’t really had a dramatic enough impact writ large that changes the nature of a state or otherwise completely rewrites expectations in any one realm,” he said. “It ends up being a relatively small matter, but still one that is something people care about, and rightly so, because these are important issues.”
For more information on the issue and the effects of cannabis legalization, visit the Moritz College of Law’s Drug Policy and Enforcement Center website.
For more information on this year’s ballot or to find your polling location, visit the Miami County Board of Elections website at https://www.boe.ohio.gov/miami/precinct-and-polling-location-info/.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Reach writer Jacob Espinosa, of the Lima News, at 567-242-0399.