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Marijuana: It's not just for fun
Author: Sarah Steimer,
Pub date: 12/10/09

Medical marijuana is becoming more accepted in the United States - and may be coming to a state near you. On Oct. 19, the U.S. Justice Department wrote in a memo that prosecuting people who sell or use medical marijuana within state laws was no longer at the top of its priority list. The department said it wants to use its resources as effectively as possible, and chasing after those involved with the drug does not follow those guidelines. The memo went to federal prosecutors in the 14 states that allow the use of medical marijuana. Ohio is not one of those 14 states, but it may be on its way.

A medical marijuana bill is to be introduced at the beginning of 2010, sponsored by state Representative Ken Yuko, said Cher Neufer, treasurer of the North Ohio chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Neufer said a medical marijuana bill has been introduced twice so far without much luck, but she noted, "How many times did it take to pass the gambling laws?" The answer: three.

Kate Lyman, Yuko's legislative aide, said right now they're using the bill State Senator Tom Roberts introduced - Senate Bill 343 - in 2008 as the basis for the new bill.

"We're tweaking it right now," Lyman said. "We're working with interested parties to make it stronger."

Ohio's close neighbor, Michigan, is a newcomer to the medical marijuana scene. Neufer said the reason this fellow Midwestern state was able to do so was because the state used an initiative, meaning the citizens voted on the issue. It costs a lot of money to do this, Neufer explained. She said the campaign and signature-gathering to gain enough support to put medical marijuana on the ballot is costly.

If they could, though, the issue would have a good chance of passing. A 2009 University of Cincinnati poll found 73 percent of Ohioans generally favor the concept of medical marijuana. Instead, Ohio lawmakers will decide.

"Our constituents need to contact their representatives and tell them that's what they want," Neufer said. The bill has a chance of passing in the Democratic-majority Ohio House of Representatives, she said, but not in the Republican Senate.

Chris Wallis, president of Kent State Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, said he thinks the U.S. Justice Department's decision is a "step in the right direction" for getting other states to reconsider their positions on medical marijuana.

"I think what really will push that through (in Ohio) is Pennsylvania getting medical marijuana to pass," Wallis said, speaking of one of Ohio's other border states. "Michigan has it. The states will see the effects."

Wallis said he had a friend with a stomach condition who was waiting to move to Michigan to legally medicate himself with cannabis. In this state his friend is considered a criminal. In Michigan, he would be a patient.

Another reason the bill may struggle, though, is because of Ohio's already relatively lenient marijuana laws, Neufer said. It's difficult to get support when those currently using cannabis - for whatever purpose - aren't struggling with the authorities. Because of this and the obstacles the bill will likely face if it makes it to the Senate, Neufer is a bit pessimistic.

"We don't think it's gonna pass this year," she said. "But we'll get some hearings and we'll publicize it. We'll get more interest. And maybe then, in the 2011-2012 sessions, that's when I think it'll happen. Not that we won't keep trying this time."

Whether this Ohio bill will pass in the next few years, or ever, remains up for debate. The issue continues to get attention across the country.

"I really would like to see it happen," Wallis said - then added, ironically, "The seeds are there, they just need a little water."

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