By Phillip Smith
Medical marijuana backers in the Buckeye State hope the third time is the charm. After twice failing to move initiative efforts in the past couple of years, activists have unveiled a third campaign, this one aimed at putting the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment (OCRA) on the ballot for the November 2014 elections.
Medical marijuana has broad popular support in Ohio -- a March Columbus Dispatch poll had support at 63% -- and a victory in Ohio would plant medical marijuana firmly in the Midwest. So far in the region, only Michigan has a medical marijuana law, although Illinois could be a medical marijuana state by the time you read these words--a bill there awaits the governor's signature.
Proponents have a tough path to follow. To qualify for the ballot, they need to gather some 385,000 valid voter signatures in the next 11 months, including at least 5% of voters from each of half of the state's 88 counties. Those are the kind of signature requirements that typically require paid signature-gathering campaigns. Ohio Rights, the people behind the OCRA, are looking for big-name funding, but right now, their campaign is relying on a network of volunteers.
"For now, it's an all-volunteer effort," said campaign spokesperson Mary Jane Borden (no relation to StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden), who in addition to campaigning for marijuana reform at home is also a past editor of that valuable compendium of drug policy information, Drug War Facts. "We will definitely be approaching big donors, but we would like to match them dollar-for-dollar in smaller contributions, like Obama, who collected hundreds of millions in small donations."
The campaign will in part pitch itself to donors as a jobs campaign, Borden said.
"Not only will the OCRA create an ethical industry and lots of jobs once it passes," she said, "but getting the amendment on the ballot itself can be a jobs creator if we get the funding. Doing a campaign like that creates jobs, and that's an important message in Ohio."
In the meantime, it's volunteer time, and that's off to a good start, said Borden. "It's been a real whirlwind and very gratifying," she said. "We went through all this work to craft the initiative, and this army of people comes out to us. It's happening almost organically. We have county captains in 40 counties now, and multiple captains in the larger counties."
The OCRA bases itself on rights enumerated in the Ohio constitution, particularly Article I, Section I, which says that Ohioans are "by nature, free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and seeking and obtaining happiness and safety."
"We thought the rights approach was the best approach," said Borden. "We saw that a lot of these laws passed in other states didn't really go to the rights. You might avoid jail for possession, but you forfeit your rights. People are losing jobs, losing custody of their children, losing housing. There is no effective right to use."
The language of the initiative itself reflects that approach. Eligible residents not only have the right to use medical marijuana, but to do so "free of discrimination and interference from the state of Ohio" as well as the right to privacy and confidentiality, the right not to get busted for impaired driving based solely on the presence of marijuana metabolites, and the right to grow their own.
The initiative would legalize, license, tax, and regulate medical marijuana; create an open-ended list of qualifying diseases and conditions; create an Ohio Commission of Cannabis Control to oversee medical marijuana; and allow for industrial hemp production to boot.
It's already picking up some big-name supporters. On July 19, famed country singer (and pot aficionado) Willie Nelson came to Cincinnati for a concert, and before the show, he formally endorsed the OCRA. The Cincinnati chapter of Nelson's Teapot Party and Happy Hemptress Lynne Wilson set up a meeting and invited Ohio Rights activists, and Nelson came on board.
"Willie is a member of the choir, of course, but he's a big name, too," said Borden. "We're very excited to have him on board."
And now, the campaign is starting to generate some opposition. On Wednesday, a group of medical professionals held a press conference in Columbus to speak out against the initiative. The star speaker for the opposition was Dr. Andrea Barthwell, who served in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George W. Bush.
"Doctors have something that is FDA approved, reliable and tested to treat every illness people claim will be better, or reduced suffering, when using marijuana," said Barthwell.
Ohio Rights takes the opposition attention in stride.
"It's the usual suspects," said Borden. "The treatment industry is scared to death it will lose clients. And they did their press conference with very little notice, because they're scared we'll be down there counter-demonstrating."
The campaign now has until next July 2 to hand in signatures. If it can meet that challenge, Ohio voters will be voting on medical marijuana in November 2014.