When we think of refugees, we think of war-torn countries, of crowded and dusty tent villages, of foreign faces. We definitely don’t think of Colorado Springs, a scenic, modern city of about 430,000 nestled at the base of Pike’s Peak. But this has become a home away from home for hundreds of people. They come from Alabama, Texas, Georgia, our home state, and beyond, and they seek one thing – a new treatment for a rare and devastating pediatric epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome. The treatment they want is weed.
Weed the People
And the Ohio Rights Group (ORG) wants to give it to them. The Columbus-based organization has put forth a ballot initiative for the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment (OCRA), which would change the Constitution of the State of Ohio to protect the rights of eligible residents to cultivate, grow, process, purchase, and use medical marijuana and industrial hemp (see page 74 for more) without the threat of arrest, prosecution, or discrimination. In Ohio, possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana has already been decriminalized – it’s a minor misdemeanor penalized by a $150 fine.
The amendment seeks to free two strains of the cannabis plant – marijuana, the flowering tops and leaves of a variety high in the psychoactive chemical delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (or more commonly, THC), and hemp, a fibrous variety very low in THC used for industrial purposes. OCRA would allow residents diagnosed with one of a host of “debilitating medical conditions” who are at least 18, or have written consent from a parent or guardian, to use therapeutic cannabis. The list includes MS, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s, cancer, PTSD, severe or chronic pain, and seizures.
ORG treasurer Mary Jane Borden, one of the amendment’s primary authors, hails from eastern Ohio where the deaths of the steel and coal industries have left ghost towns dotting the landscape. She sees industrial hemp as a way for Ohio to leverage its industry, agriculture, and distribution to regain its status as an economic powerhouse. She also spent nine years as a market analyst in the pharmaceutical industry, a business she now sees as being largely devoid of ethics, pointing to the fact that physicians are encouraged to prescribe opiates that cause hundreds of overdose deaths a year in Ohio while marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug, alongside heroin and ecstasy.
John Pardee, ORG’s president, joined in 2012 when a previous ballot initiative fell short. He has operated his own environmental consulting business for the past 23 years and has carried that businesslike sense of accountability into his leadership, insisting on a professional, unified organization. But the fight is also personal for Pardee. Six years ago, his son was nearly killed in a car wreck that left him with chronic pain, and like many others, he was prescribed opiates by his doctors. Pardee eventually realized that medical marijuana was the safest analgesic around, yet it was largely out of reach.
His son now lives in California, a medical refugee, growing a special new strain of marijuana known as Charlotte’s Web.
In the Land of Refugees
Jordan Lyles seemed like any other newborn, but her DNA contained a genetic time bomb, Dravet Syndrome. Hers exploded at six months with a 45-minute seizure, and it was the last time her mother Paula saw her free of medication. At her worst, Jordan suffered 72 grand mal seizures in one night.
Paula, who was raised in Upper Arlington and moved to Bay Village near Cleveland after college, felt that the cure was worse than the disease. Jordan’s anticonvulsant pharmaceuticals risked catastrophic side effects, including learning disabilities, loss of motor skills, complete appetite loss, and blindness.
“Do you want a seizing child, or a blind child, or a blind and seizing child?” she said. “Take your pick.”
She discovered the potential of medical marijuana from a Dravet parent in Colorado and attempted to get Jordan enrolled in a medical study in New York City. The study got delayed repeatedly, and then last September, Jordan’s condition spiraled downward. For Paula it was simple: relocate, or stay home and watch her daughter die.
So she and Jordan, now 18 but with the developmental cognition of a seven- or eight-year-old, packed up and pointed the car west, leaving Jordan’s 25-year-old sister and her father behind in Bay Village. On October 3, 2013, they arrived in Colorado Springs, the birthplace of Charlotte’s Web.
A group of five brothers had developed the strain of marijuana with low enough levels of THC to qualify as hemp. But it was bred to enhance the content of one of the plant’s non-psychoactive compounds called cannabidiol, or CBD, which has shown powerful anti-inflammatory and neuro-protective properties. They named it after Charlotte Figi, their first Dravet patient.
Since Thanksgiving, Jordan has been taking a 100-milligram solution of Charlotte’s Web hemp oil. Twice a day, Paula aspirates 0.75 milliliters from a cough syrup bottle into a tiny, needleless syringe and places it in Jordan’s mouth. She’s reduced her pharmaceuticals by one-quarter. Her seizures are down 75 percent, her speech has improved, and she’s added five pounds to her waif-like frame. She still has rough days, but she left the worst of it in Ohio.
Paula and Jordan get support from a community of between 120 and 150 refugee families living in Colorado Springs. There are two others from Ohio within one mile of their house, and another family from around the country arrives each week. But Paula misses Lake Erie, her other daughter, and her husband, who works to provide for two homes 1,400 miles apart.
“I have a new feel for what ‘refugee’ means. We can’t go anywhere,” she said. “I come back to Ohio with it, I get arrested and Jordan gets taken away. This is 2014, you know? Things like that should not happen.”
A Constitutional Fight
Stories like Jordan’s have inspired ORG to attempt to change things fundamentally through OCRA. It is the third attempt by some iteration of the group to add a constitutional amendment granting medicinal marijuana to Ohioans. A previous version in 2012 was 30 pages long and laid out a systematic, detailed regulatory structure modeled on the Ohio Liquor Control Commission. But that was struck down by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine because the summary of the amendment, vital for voters to understand the ballot initiative, did not match the full text.
This time around, the regulatory structure has nearly all been stripped out except for one major piece – the Ohio Commission of Cannabis Control, a nine-member board in charge of implementing medical marijuana and industrial hemp. The amendment sets out specifications for members of the commission board, culling from medical marijuana patients, farmers, physicians, and law enforcement, among others. Ohio’s General Assembly would provide funding to cover implementation, and after that, all operating costs would be covered by fines and licensing, regulatory, and permitting fees.
The amendment has already passed the first hurdle on its journey to election day this November: the language of the amendment was accepted by DeWine and the ORG has the go-ahead to collect petitions for the issue’s inclusion on the ballot. By July 2, ORG must gather 385,247 verified signatures and get support from no less than 5 percent of the turnout from the previous gubernatorial election in at least 44 of 88 counties. They currently have 45,000 signatures in their database, another 60,000 to 130,000 in circulation, and they’ve met the 5-percent requirement in four counties. They plan to hire a professional signature-gathering firm to aid their efforts, but that could cost them upwards of $1.4 million – a sizeable sum for a grassroots organization.
Perhaps the biggest challenge will come from within, though. In the past, the medical marijuana movement in Ohio has fractured from amongst its own ranks, as members with different goals, agendas, or allegiances started fights that caused disunity. When the group failed to get the amendment onto the 2013 ballot, Pardee said he received physical threats from livid marijuana supporters. Now that he’s in charge, though, he won’t stand for havoc within ORG, regardless of the source.
“There are way too many patients who absolutely need us to be successful,” he said. “Failure is not an option this time.”
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
Make no mistake though – there will be external opposition. A primary source will be the Drug Free Action Alliance (DFAA), a nonprofit that works to prevent substance abuse through education.
DFAA fears that medical marijuana will be more readily available for teens and will send them on a path to heavier abuse, the controversial “gateway effect.” Marijuana advocates dismiss such talk, while opponents point out that most heroin addicts smoke pot first.
Gary Wenk, Ph.D., a neuroscience and medical genetics professor at Ohio State, agreed that very few people start with heroin, but said the argument should be extrapolated both ways. Statistically speaking, virtually no one smokes marijuana without smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, and most people don’t do those things unless they’ve drunk coffee before, and very, very few people drink coffee unless they’ve had cola first.
“So the actual gateway drug to heroin is cola,” said Wenk, the author of Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings.
The most important point of contention is that DFAA doesn’t consider cannabis to be medicine. Marcie Seidel, DFAA’s executive director, said that medicine must go through the FDA process, and legislative and voter initiatives don’t meet that standard.
Despite DFAA’s non-medicinal label, Wenk is pioneering a new treatment for dementia in aging brains using marijuana’s non-psychoactive compounds called cannabinoids. When he gave elderly rats a dose equivalent to one puff of marijuana, he found that it significantly slowed the progression of memory decline, results he categorized as “spectacular.” He’s since begun work with a drug that utilizes the brain’s own marijuana-like compounds, called endogenous cannabinoids, essentially allowing the brain to treat itself. The cannabinoid drug – which exists at a molecular level, not in a plastic baggie – has the potential to provide effective treatment for any disease related to inflammation in the brain, which includes ALS, Parkinson’s, AIDS, and MS.
Crime is another key issue. Howard Rahtz, a former counseling supervisor at one of the nation’s first methadone clinics and a retired captain with the Cincinnati police department, said that the amendment would have a tremendous positive impact on law enforcement. Rahtz’s main aim, detailed in his book Drugs, Crime and Violence: From Trafficking to Treatment, is to end the bloodshed associated with the illegal drug market, and he claimed that marijuana legalization would steal away 60 percent of the cartels’ revenue.
But Seidel refuted that notion, saying that marijuana is just a front to get people hooked on harder drugs, and legalization would only change the cartels’ business model.
Rahtz, who has been tapped by Pardee to join the Commission of Cannabis Control if the amendment receives approval, doesn’t buy that argument. “That exact same thing was said as states began to open lotteries and open casinos, that it’s all gonna be mob-controlled. It hasn’t happened because strict regulation has prohibited that.”
And so it goes, back and forth. The activists and prohibitionists each use studies and research to support their own positions, sometimes even pointing to the same information to make vastly different points. Pardee cited a recent study that found that traffic deaths in Colorado have declined under legalization; Seidel referenced the same report but pointed to the fact that fatalities in which the driver tested positive for marijuana have spiked by two to three times. The statistics eventually lose meaning, the two sides picking and choosing only what will confirm their own beliefs.
States of the Marijuana Union
Medical marijuana is an especially volatile topic because it’s often seen as an incremental step toward recreational legalization, and while Pardee and Borden said that’s not the focus of this amendment, it does seem to be an arc of the movement in general. And there is a test case – Colorado – which became the nation’s first experiment with the recreational pot industry after the passage of Amendment 64 in November 2012, operating in tandem with a 14-year-old medical marijuana program.
According to Ron Hyman, Colorado’s registrar of vital statistics and the director of its Medical Marijuana Registry (MMR), the state began the program with a “miniscule” financial investment and one employee, processing about 1,000 applications per year. But when Attorney General Eric Holder released a memo in 2009 stating that the feds wouldn’t prosecute patients, MMR blossomed and now serves nearly 111,000 registered users, sustained entirely by application and renewal fees.
In Colorado, medical marijuana and recreational weed must be sold from dispensaries that are physically separate, though in some cases that’s as simple as a dividing wall and a pair of doors. Through its first month, the recreational program was on pace to bring in more than $90 million in annual tax revenue, the first $40 million of which will go toward school construction, though any money generated by medical marijuana must stay within MMR.
There have been bumps in the road, though: MMR struggled to ramp up when popularity soared; access has been limited in some counties where dispensaries aren’t permitted; and Hyman said there have probably been some limited abuses of the program.
In the Midwest, Michigan adopted legalization in 2008. Carole Engle, the director of the Bureau of Health Care Services, which oversees the state’s Medical Marihuana Program (MMMP), said that the program struggled to keep up with overwhelming initial demand – administrators expected 10,000 or less patients, but residents flocked and there are more than 118,000, as well as 27,000 individual caregivers, who grow marijuana for patients.
“In my opinion, Michigan’s medical marijuana law is not terribly clearly written, and so there are some issues that come up that make it difficult for law enforcement to enforce the law,” Engle said. “It makes it difficult for patients.” First dispensaries were allowed, then struck down, and now there is pending legislation to make them legal again. Several localities also banned medical marijuana within their boundaries, which the state Supreme Court recently overruled.
But MMMP has also enjoyed success – a five-year surplus of $23.5 million, though like Colorado, the money must remain in the program.
A Furious Debate
On February 20, medical marijuana advocates and opponents faced off at the Columbus Museum of Art for a town hall-style debate. Pardee and Seidel sat on a panel that also included Dr. Steve Matson, the president of the Ohio chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and Michael Revercomb, the vice president of Ohio NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).
A crowd of people mostly in support of marijuana reform lobbed questions and personal anecdotes that grew more bizarre, partisan, and off-topic as the night continued. The panelists responded in kind, and the whole affair eventually devolved into a contentious squabble of half-answers and stale platitudes. At one point during a disagreement with Revercomb and Pardee, Seidel just shook her head and repeated over and over, “My data says, ‘No, you’re wrong.’”
The debate did briefly address one key point, the Committee to Represent the Petitioners, a group of five people behind the amendment – Borden, Robert Fitrakis, Linda Pardee (John’s wife), Connie Everett, and Don Wirtshafter. This group will select six of the nine members of the first Ohio Commission of Cannabis Control, giving these activists an enormous amount of influence.
John Pardee and Borden said that the reasoning was to ensure that the Commission could seat a quorum as soon as the amendment passes, and they also feel that gathering the required number of signatures means they will be speaking on behalf of the people of Ohio. But the fact remains that a vote for the constitutional amendment is also a de facto vote for the decision-making of these five people.
That issue also points to another source of concern – the amendment itself does not contain much in the way of specifics about the regulatory system, fees and taxes, the amount of marijuana allowed per patient, or the role of doctors. It bestows a wide range of authority onto the first Commission, and hence the selection Committee, and it requires a substantial vote of confidence.
State Representative Robert Hagan from Youngstown said he would like to see marijuana reform come through the legislature so that the structure is outlined in detail. He has introduced House Bill 153 to legalize medical marijuana and Joint Resolution 6 to legalize recreational use, and he’s also in the final stages of preparing a new bill to legalize CBD content, inspired by Charlotte’s Web. But his efforts seem to have stalled, and he said that if the legislature doesn’t want to address the issue then he will throw his support behind the ORG ballot initiative.
As OCRA moves forward, the theater of the absurd will branch outward from the town hall, sending Ohioans down the rabbit hole of a polarizing, even disingenuous debate…
The marijuana advocates decry the absurdity of prohibiting the use of a harmless plant, and then in the very next breath tout its potency as a medicine. But potency has no inherit morality – if something is powerful, it can produce either positive or negative results.
Pardee claimed that the human body is designed to accept marijuana because of the brain’s endogenous cannabinoids, and though Professor Wenk didn’t dispute that outright, he clarified that the brain also has endogenous opiate and PCP systems, which would imply that the body is also designed for heroin and angel dust.
Members of the opposition fare no better, often saying things that illustrate how disconnected they are from other people’s reality, like that of the Dravet refugees.
“If they were my children,” Seidel said, “I’d wanna make sure that there wasn’t any complications down the road that I wasn’t expecting and thought, ‘Why didn’t I think, or why did I rush to do this?’”
As if the decision to put half a country between family members was one of blind impulse, rather than one of the most difficult of their lives. As if patients with debilitating illnesses have the luxury of considering future complications, rather than desperately seeking something – anything – that treats disease without mutilating what remains of their bodies and minds.
“People begin with the truth and slip into half-truths and then outright misinterpretations to make the wrong conclusions, and it doesn’t help,” Wenk said about the debate. “Nobody wins.”
If OCRA makes the November ballot, the arguments will rage further, and they will become less honest and less intelligent each day. It will be a litmus test of where voters land on some cultural-political scale on which there are only two options, for and against. Do you like pot, or don’t you?
We will be led to believe that we must free this plant from prohibition in order to save the sickest among us. But marijuana can be both therapeutic and detrimental, depending on the circumstance, the user, and the effect desired. Wenk’s research which uncovered spectacular results for the elderly also showed that the same dosage caused memory impairment in young brains.
We will also be led to believe that legalization will unmake society as we know it. So we should wait for the FDA to do further analysis and studies and studies and more studies, despite the fact that the FDA has approved of plenty of toxic drugs in the past, from Percocet to Vioxx to Tylenol. Then they will tell us that joining the rising tide of marijuana reform will create a drug culture, exposing precious youth to the evils of that psychotic weed, while we exile convulsive children to Colorado indefinitely.
And then it will be ours to decide. Unfortunately for everyone, the best solution rarely comes from something so effortless as checking “yes” or “no” on a ballot.
For more about the Ohio Rights Group’s initiative, visitwww.ohiorightsgroup.org.