CLEVELAND — Marijuana law is constantly changing across the United States as individual states and cities revise and decriminalize the drug, and Congress considers changes at the federal level.
Experts say it’s simply a matter of “when” marijuana is legal across the nation for adults.
But some advocates, like Corinne Gasper, are urging lawmakers to reconsider making it easier to access the drug she blames for taking her daughter. Gasper has pictures all over her Ohio home of her daughter, Jennifer Hrobuchak.
“This man was from the state of Michigan,” said Gasper. “He was passing through our state and he was high on the medical marijuana that he had gotten from his state: Michigan.”
It’s why Gasper's organization, Jennifer’s Messengers, teaches people about the dangers of drugged driving and opposes legalized marijuana.
She points to states like Colorado, where the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area data says traffic deaths and crashes have increased significantly since recreational marijuana was legalized in that state.
Data from the Ohio State Highway Patrol doesn’t show any increase in marijuana-related crashes since Ohio’s Medical Marijuana Control Program started selling to patients in 2019, but much of that time has also seen reduced travel overall due to the COVID pandemic.
Losing the Guardrails
“You know, my concern with full legalization of marijuana is that we’re losing those bumpers that keep us safe,” said Prevention Action Alliance Executive Director Fran Gerbig.
Gerbig says Ohio’s Medical Marijuana Control Program at least has patients get examined and receive a recommendation from certified Doctors before they are allowed to purchase medical marijuana.
Adult-use legislation would remove those steps.
“If we take away the bumpers, those protective factors around marijuana, who is going to be monitoring that?” asked Gerbig. "Who’s going to be helping you make good decisions?”
Cannabis industry experts contend that operating vehicles under the influence of marijuana, or any other drug or alcohol, is illegal now, and would be illegal even if adult use is approved.
“Why do we want to add to a list of vices?” asked Gerbig. “Why do we want to continue to compound and continue to add upon things that make our communities unhealthy and unsafe?”
Advocates point out that marijuana could be more accessible to more people, although everyone admits it’s fairly easy to get for anyone who wants it right now through the black market.
“I mean, we’re still going to have a problem because it still creates a problem whether it’s legal or illegal,” said Ohio Fraternal Order of Police President Gary Wolske. “If the legislature decides to make it legal, people are still going to be out there driving under the influence, which creates a problem for everybody.”
Current federal laws that prohibit marijuana, Gasper says, set a tone that people need to be careful around it and shouldn’t use it at all.
“I think a lot of people believe that once it’s legal, then it will be okay,” said Gasper. “A lot more people are going to be using the drug if it’s legalized because they’re going to assume if our government has legalized it, then it can’t be that bad.”
Three paths to legalization
Lawmakers are taking those concerns into account as they craft two different pieces of legislation that could legalize marijuana in Ohio while an initiated statute offers a third path to a similar goal.
Rep. Casey Weinstein (D-Hudson) and Rep. Terrence UpChurch, (D-Cleveland) believe their new push to legalize recreational marijuana in Ohio will have a much stronger momentum this time around.
“I think the time is right. The people are ready and it's so beneficial in terms of revenues that we can drive back into communities and improve lives. For Ohioans, it just made a lot of sense,” Weinstein said.
It would allow adults in Ohio to grow and possess marijuana and expunge previous convictions.
Rep. Jamie Callender (R-Concord) and Rep. Ron Ferguson (R-Wintersville) are working on a bill that would also allow Ohioans to have adult-use marijuana for people older than 21 as long as they have photo identification when they go to a dispensary.
“We’re really taking the medical program and expanding it,” said Rep. Callender. “So we’re leaving in place all of the regulation and oversight, the testing, the quality control, both to the content of the product and to the distribution, who can buy it in the hands of those and the same process as have with medical.”
He says he feels the state has done a good size creating the medical marijuana program with secure dispensaries and state testing to make sure the products are safe.
“Some of those states are just liberal states that wanted an extra party drug,” said Callender. “Ohio is a little bit discriminate than that, we’re a little bit conservative than that, and it makes sense that our adult-use program would be a more conservative model.”
The initiated statue would also allow end marijuana prohibition, expand how much cannabis can be grown in Ohio, and create a Social Equity Fund trying to help communities historically disadvantaged by cannabis laws.
Most people on both sides of the cannabis debate largely agree that adult-use marijuana is likely going to be a reality in Ohio at some point in the next few years.
That means cannabis opponents are starting to organize education campaigns that would tell people about the effects of marijuana and why it’s dangerous to drive under the influence, similar to the large drunk driving campaigns Americans are used to already.
The hope is that those efforts prevent another crash like Jennifer's.
“She was just everything I could have wanted,” said Gasper. “Doing nothing wrong and she was wiped off the face of this earth because someone was irresponsible enough to get into their car high.”
If you want more information about the effort to curb marijuana legalization, you can click to visit websites for these organizations: Parents Opposed to Pot, Every Brain Matters, and Jennifer’s Messengers.
Here is data about traffic deaths in Colorado.
Here is some information showing similar data but controlling for other factors, showing that similar data can tell a different story.
Here is information from NPR showing some of the positive results they found years after adult-use was legalized.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s statement on the effort to legalize recreational use marijuana:
“I support properly regulated medical marijuana; I oppose legalizing marijuana for the purpose of getting stoned.
Marijuana is largely decriminalized in Ohio now; possession of less than 100g—almost a quarter pound—is not even an arrestable offense in Ohio.”
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