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Prospects don't look good for medicinal marijuana statute

October 16, 2003
John Lasker
Athens News

What do you get with a Republican-dominated Statehouse, a governor's office with the usual slant against illegal drug use, and a proposal for a medicinal marijuana law?

Maybe, just maybe, a marijuana pill, or even a spray. But a big "maybe" at that.

Currently, Ohio medicinal marijuana proponents are ironing out some confusion within a bill they've been drafting for more than a year now. But as the time nears to present what they're calling the Ohio Medicinal Marijuana Act to the floors of the Statehouse, even proponents grudgingly acknowledge the prospects don't look good. Ohio is still a long way from getting even a whiff of legislation allowing those who suffer from cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and a host of other ailments the choice to benefit from medicinal marijuana.

The nonprofit Ohio Patients Network (OPN) recently forwarded a draft to Democratic state Rep. Ken Carano from Youngstown. OPN is the lead public sponsor of a medicinal marijuana bill, and Carano is considered one of Ohio's few political officeholders who would even consider taking such a bill to the Statehouse, where Republicans significantly outnumber Democrats.

Also in Columbus is the governor's wife, Hope Taft, who played a major role in strong-arming last summer's Issue 1 into submission and is also recognized as one of the nation's leading "War on Drugs" proponents.

It is widely known that Issue 1 -- a public vote authorizing rehabilitation instead of prison for possession offenders -- was defeated with the help of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money. Viewed by some as zealots against recreational drug use, the governor's office used public money to put down a public vote. An elected official helped squash the electoral process. This is prohibited under state law.

In essence, presenting a medicinal marijuana bill at the Statehouse is akin to throwing a Christian to the lions.

"The executive branch is pretty much against this," conceded Carano, who admitted that just getting the bill into committee and thus into a debate among both Republicans and Democrats would mean a victory.

"This bill goes nowhere if I can't get some Republicans on my side," said the 58-year-old Carano, a self-described "very liberal person."

For instance, the speaker of the Ohio House -- Republican Larry Householder -- gets first shot on whether the bill is even worthy for committee. But Carano believes there's a number of moderate Republicans who, if anything, are willing to listen.

A former teacher, Carano stressed that in no way is he advocating the use of marijuana for any reason but medicinal. Along with "a strong basis of medical fact," he said his instinct is telling him many could benefit from medicinal marijuana.

He likened the debate to the short history of OxyContin. There was widespread abuse among non-patients, but thousands more now depend on it for their quality of life. The opposition, said Carano, refers to this potential problem as the "control" issue. The issue's premise is whether or not medicinal marijuana can stay within the possession of patients and stay out of the hands of abusers.

The "control" problem has become a major contention for, most notably, the state's professional rehabilitation community. They see forms of medicinal marijuana heading the way of heroin and methadone -- drugs created for medicinal applications eventually twisting into another fuel for addiction.

"I'm not doing this for fun and games," Carano said. "I want an honest debate from both sides of the argument." He said he's currently being "bombarded" with information both pro and con for medicinal marijuana.

Nevertheless, overshadowing any initiative seeking to relax state drug laws is the Tafts' committed position against illegal buzzes. Take the recent confusion over the proposed medicinal marijuana bill.

Carano, along with other Statehouse figures, has been priming the bill for potential debate. Carano recently suggested to Columbus' The Other Paper that the bill's only chance might lie in how it stipulates delivery of the marijuana or THC -- in this case, pill form alone.

The Ohio Patients Network immediately corrected Carano, stating that the bill needs to include several different delivery methods. Deirdre Zoretic, director of patient advocacy for the Ohio Patient Network, said that many patients find that a medicinal marijuana pill, such as Marinol, worsens their nausea.

"That was just an idea," said Zoretic from Cleveland. "It has to be set up different to represent all those who need its benefits.

"Different patients need different methods of delivery," she added, "whether that's ingesting it, a rub, a mist, or a product called the 'Volcano' (an inhaler-like apparatus available in Europe). I would like to keep the smoking method open as well."

In its three-year existence, the Ohio Patients Network has become a formidable grass-roots effort for medicinal marijuana use. Zoretic said the organization is 600 strong statewide and seeking to gain the support of what she believes is a large number of Ohio medicinal marijuana users afraid to leave the proverbial closet.

"I honestly feel there are thousands upon thousands already treating themselves with marijuana, and I believe many more thousands haven't discovered the benefits of medicinal marijuana yet," she said.

Zoretic, who suffers from a nerve disease called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), said that roughly 200 medical conditions can be alleviated by medicinal marijuana. However, after Cleveland Police accidentally discovered several plants in her house, she was prosecuted and claims to have stopped using marijuana since then.

"The stress from being prosecuted exacerbated my condition," she said of the pain that frequently strikes RSD patients.

Not surprisingly, the arrest and subsequent trial wouldn't be the first time so-called "drug warriors" pushed her around mentally and physically.

At an Issue 1 debate last November in Cleveland, Zoretic said she tried to offer Gov. Taft a summary of a White House-commissioned 1999 Institute of Medicine report that concluded medicinal marijuana can benefit some patients. But before she could reach the governor, the tall and slender Hope Taft grabbed the petite Zoretic and physically held her back.

To Zoretic's surprise, Mrs. Taft was familiar with her and her cause.

"I started to explain to her who I was and she knew," recalled Zoretic. She said Hope Taft at least listened to what she had to say and even offered sympathy for those seeking medicinal marijuana.

In the Athens area, another proponent of medicinal marijuana who also has felt the sting of drug warriors noted that Canada and Britain are leaving their past marijuana prejudices behind because of overwhelming evidence that thousands can improve their lives with medicinal marijuana. In both nations, a doctor or the government can prescribe medicinal marijuana for legal use.

Don Wirtshafter, who once owned the Ohio Hempery in Guysville, said that he's traveled to England for months at a time during the last two years consulting for several pharmaceutical operations seeking to introduce medicinal marijuana products.

"Eighty-one percent of multiple sclerosis patients in England and 96 percent in Canada said herbal cannabis is good medicine," said Wirthshafter. Pot decreases the number and severity of spasms in MS patients, he said, noting that the studies were conducted with the help of pharmaceutical companies and multiple sclerosis groups.

"The British and Canadians are clearly in favor of medicinal marijuana," he said.

Wirtshafter was compelled in part to close the Ohio Hempery two years ago after the federal Drug Enforcement Agency stepped up its crackdown on the distribution of hemp seeds and other hemp products. He since has moved that operation to Canada.

Currently, under federal law, medicinal marijuana is illegal. However, 10 states are trumping federal law. Eight of those states' medicinal laws were created through referendum (or public vote), while the laws of the other two states were passed by state government.

Copyright © 2003, Athens News