Monday, 02 February 2015 00:00

Marijuana legalization debate lights up in Ohio

Written by Michael D. Pitman and Vivienne Machi | Journal News

Supporters for marijuana legalization say that the city of Hamilton’s proposal to ban medical marijuana sales throughout its limits ahead of any potential statewide vote is premature, and city residents began to voice their dissent against the change in zoning ordinances late last week.

“It’s not like it’s a toxic site that’s really doing harm to people,” said pro-marijuana attorney Bob Fitrakis. “But in this case, it should be no different than a pharmacy … we’ve been through all of this stuff through alcohol.”

The debate over marijuana legalization in Ohio has picked up steam locally and statewide in recent weeks as several groups are working to get the issue on November’s ballot, and Hamilton has proposed zoning changes to keep medical marijuana sales out of town before any vote has been cast.

“They’re totally premature in making this kind of thing without examining the issue in depth,” said Rob Ryan, president of the NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) Ohio chapter.

The Journal-News reported Wednesday that city officials are considering preemptively banning medical marijuana sales in all zoning districts ahead of any possible statewide legislation in November. Senior planner John Creech said the proposed change stemmed from comments received at several public input meetings in late 2013 concerning zoning changes of all types.

A caucus report included in Hamilton’s City Council Jan. 28 meeting agenda stated, “Due to concerns expressed at public input meetings held last year on permitted and conditional land uses in business zoning districts and by City Council, the attached zoning amendment will preemptively ban Medical Marijuana sales in all zoning districts of the City of Hamilton.”

As of now, medical marijuana is currently legal in 23 states, as well as the District of Columbia.

Hamilton resident Anthony Weisenberger, 29, spoke against the proposed zoning change during the audience of citizens section of the Jan. 28 meeting.

Introducing himself as “a veteran, a patient and a parent,” Weisenberger spoke of the benefits medical marijuana sales could bring to the city, including freeing up law enforcement resources to focus on “harder” crimes and following other states such as Colorado and Washington who have received tax revenue after legalizing marijuana.

He called on the city to see what the residents of Hamilton truly wanted.

“Put a poll out to the city … let the people decide before you take something from them that they never even had,” he said.

Mayor Pat Moeller, a member of the city’s planning commission, said that the caucus report was “the first in a number of steps.”

“We’ll do our homework to address it, listen to public hearing comments if there are any, and wait for the meeting in February,” he said. A public hearing and first reading of the ordinance are scheduled for the February 11 City Council meeting, with a second reading and vote currently scheduled for the Feb. 25 City Council meeting.

A pro-marijuana legalization attorney from Columbus, Fitrakis said Hamilton’s proposed zoning changes are “clearly symbolic” because not only are selling, buying, growing and using marijuana already illegal, but if it is legalized in some form “the constitutional amendment is going to trump local zoning laws.”

“It depends on how specific the zoning laws are,” he said. “They don’t have the power to zone it out of existence if it is in the constitution. Constitutional law always trumps local ordinances.”

“Future changes in state law may or may not affect local laws,” Hamilton Law Director Heather Sanderson Lewis wrote in an email to the Journal-News. “If Council approves amendments to the zoning ordinance, and if state law changes in the future, the City will evaluate what effect, if any, the state law has on local zoning ordinances.”

It also depends on if the proposed laws allow dispensaries in certain cities or areas within the state, possibly similar to the casino laws where casinos were only permitted to be built in certain areas of the state. Fitrakis said ResponsibleOhio is planning to submit a request to the Ohio Ballot Board on Monday a pro-marijuana ballot issue.

While you can have reasonable zoning to restrict adult entertainment businesses to certain areas, it wouldn’t be reasonable to restrict a medical marijuana dispensary. There would be rules and regulations set up by a proposed nine-member Ohio Commission of Cannabis Control, according to Ohio Rights Group’s proposal, which has collected about 150,000 signatures of Ohioans since January 2012.

Fitrakis said in medical marijuana “there are strains that don’t make you high at all,” and that this type of proposed zoning is unheard of.

“Particularly if it’s passed as medical marijuana…I don’t know how you could in fact be doing the equivalent of preventing people from getting insulin or other medical supplies,” he said.

The Ohio Rights Group has one of three constitutional amendment issues aiming for November’s ballot legalizing the use of medical marijuana. Member John Pardee said he’ll only have a problem with the proposed zoning law changes in Hamilton is if they impose or infringe on an individual’s rights, comparing the issue to dry versus wet counties when it comes to alcohol.

The Ohio Rights Group received their OK from the Ohio Ballot Board in 2012 to have the right to place a constitutional amendment on a ballot. Next, the issue is submitted to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office for approval, and then certified as a single issue by the Ohio Secretary of State. Then 10 percent of the last gubernatorial election is required, and because of the anemic voter turnout in November 2014, the group only has to have 306,000 valid signatures of registered Ohio voters.

Pardee said they have about 150,000 raw signatures and have signatures from 30 counties. They must also collect signatures from 44 of the state’s 88 counties, with all signatures due by July 1 in order to qualify for the November 2015 ballot.

“The beauty of our amendment that it’s a rights-based amendment,” which gives every Ohioan the right to sell, buy and grow cannabis, Pardee added.

After talking with political consultants, the group may push for a 2016 ballot issue – which is a presidential election year and a higher turnout. There may also be competing issues coming up in this year’s general election, and “we want to make sure the rights of the citizens of Ohio are taken into account.”

Ryan said he’s never heard of a preemptive ban of medical marijuana and believes “it’s premature” to enact such laws. He added he’ll be at the Feb. 11 meeting where proposed zoning legislation will be introduced.

“There are a number of citizens that I know directly that have been negatively affected by marijuana prohibition, either due to their medical condition or their legal entanglement,” he said. “And quite frankly it’s time to get past the refer madness.”

Ryan said the laws against marijuana exist because of the criminals who abuse it.

In the Ohio Revised Code, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, just like heroin or methamphetamine, “even though it’s nowhere near that danger level,” said Ryan.

Ryan, a three-time cancer survivor, said he is “highly allergic” to strong opiate medications, and his oncologist supported the use of marijuana for pain management.

“Marijuana has therapeutic purposes and benefits, and it’s not as addictive, deadly and without medical use as Ohio currently defines it to be,” he said.

Responsible Ohio, which is campaigning for a constitutional amendment, on Friday disclosed the following partial list of its financial backers, which included former and current pro-athletes — such as Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati Royals fame and Frostee Tucker, former Cincinnati Bengals player who currently plays defensive end for the Arizona Cardinals — and real estate developers, a fashion designer and a sports agent.

The group said it expects to release proposed ballot language in February. Investors backing the campaign, which is expected to cost more than $25 million, will control the 10 growing sites for legal marijuana, if the ballot issue passes.

Four Republican statewide leaders came out strongly against legalizing marijuana in Ohio and took shots at ResponsibleOhio’s amendment.

Attorney General Mike DeWine called it a “stupid idea” and Treasurer Josh Mandel said while it might lead to increased Girl Scout cookie sales, it’s a bad idea.

Secretary of State Jon Husted said that it is “offensive” that Ohioans will be asked to grant a business monopoly through an amendment to the Ohio Constitution.

State Auditor Dave Yost said Ohio should have a constitutional amendment that prohibits any future amendments that carve out business monopolies, referencing the 2009 constitutional amendment approved by voters that named for specific casino sites. Yost asked if creating a monopoly for whorehouses might be next.

Gov. John Kasich is also on the record opposing legalizing marijuana in Ohio.

Staff writer Laura Bischoff contributed to this report.

Link to original article from the Journal News

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