THE DEBATE over the re-legalization of cannabis, whether for medicinal or recreational purposes, has been raging on for decades. Currently, 21 states and Washington D.C. have legalized the herb for medicinal use. Washington state and Colorado have gone a step further, also making recreational use OK in the eyes of the law.
To the dismay of many patients and those afflicted with diseases and other conditions, Ohio is not one of the 21 states which have legalized the medicinal use of cannabis (or marijuana, as it has come to be known). That could soon change, however.
A petition started by The Ohio Rights Group has been circulating around the Ohio Valley (and the entire state) for quite some time in regards to therapeutic cannabis and industrialized hemp, both of which are currently illegal in the state.
According to President John Pardee, "The Ohio Rights Group was formed to advocate on behalf of citizens who need safe access to therapeutic cannabis here in Ohio but are denied that right."
In order to get the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment on the ballot, ORG must collect approximately 385,000 signatures around the state, with a little over 1,100 of those needed from Belmont County. Each county has its own number of required signatures based upon statistics from the previous gubernatorial election. The required number must be obtained in 44 of Ohio's 88 counties in order to be put on the next ballot.
"We're trying to get it on the ballot as soon as we possibly can," Pardee said. "There are so many people who are suffering - even dying - every day without access to (cannabis). These people are made to suffer, and it's just not right."
Pardee explained that cannabis can help with myriad diseases and conditions, including multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and cancer. The list is limitless.
However, patients are suffering because they do not have legal access to a medicine that could greatly benefit them.
Because it is illegal, many veterans could lose their benefits if they test positive for cannabis. Likewise, parents of an epileptic child could use cannabis to lessen the severity of their child's seizures, or even do away with the episodes altogether. However, giving the child illegal cannabis could result in a loss of custody.
"The true victims of the drug war are our bravest veterans and those with debilitating conditions. Cannabis could really help these people," Pardee said. "Our organization has been growing steadily, and people are seeing what we're able to accomplish. Our message is starting to resonate with many Ohioans. They want to see a common sense implementation to allow people to have access to (medicinal cannabis).
"We're trying to get people to realize that they have a say in their own future if we band together and speak with one voice. One person alone doesn't have a lot of power, but all of us coming together, we have a lot of power. It's good for Ohio, good for Ohio families, good for Ohio businesses. We're starting to build a coalition, and we're starting to make a difference," he said.
Leanne Barbee, executive assistant for ORG, also discussed the petition and why the organization is pursuing the legalization of medicinal cannabis.
"We are fighting for the patients of Ohio to be able to choose the medicine they use, whether it is cannabis or not. It should be their right to choose. They shouldn't be prosecuted."
Barbee explained the industrialized hemp clause in the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment as well. "The hemp clause would allow farmers to grow (hemp) and use it for all of its industrial purposes."
Hemp is a generic term for a strain of the cannabis plant which does not contain any tetrahydrocannabinol (THC - the active ingredient in marijuana that causes one to feel high). Even though this strain contains no THC, it has been illegal since1937 when legislation was passed to make marijuana illegal.
"There are thousands, if not tens-of-thousands, of products that can be made from hemp itself," Barbee said. "The seeds are rich in amino acids. You can make clothing, plastic, oil, pretty much anything."
Barbee also explained hempcrete, which is a product made by mixing hemp and lime to form a concrete-like substance. "It's just as strong if not stronger than concrete," she said, explaining that over time the product actually becomes more durable, unlike many building materials currently in use. Barbee stated that the State of Ohio is missing out on a multi-million dollar industry by keeping industrialized hemp illegal.
The ORG of Belmont County has been setting up at local colleges the past few weeks, including Ohio University Eastern and Belmont College. During Tuesday's primary elections, ORG had representatives set up at several polling places around the area and across the state. In order to place a valid signature on any petition, one has to be a registered voter. Thus, the polling locations were a great place for the organization to spread its message, as they ensured a steady stream of registered voters.
"Eighty-seven percent of Ohioans support medical cannabis," said Bill Schmitt Jr., captain of the ORG in Belmont County. "It's just up to us volunteers to get this on the ballot. Once it gets on the ballot, it's definitely going to be legalized."
Schmitt explained that he and other volunteers have amassed quite a lot of signatures over the last few weeks. "We've been getting a lot of signatures through my office and at various table events. I had one at OUE and Belmont College." Schmitt stated that a recent table event was held at Belmont College on Tuesday and more than 300 signatures for the petition were collected in about 6 hours. The organization was again set up at Belmont College on Thursday for a few hours and collected even more signatures for the cause.
Concerning his office, Schmitt said, "I opened an office in the Chase Bank building in Bellaire (Suite 412). I opened it up as my gift to the ORG as far as trying to have a southeastern base in Ohio." Schmitt stated that anyone wishing to sign the petition can stop into the office from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.
Additionally, there are more upcoming table events for anyone who wishes to sign the petition. One will be held during Memorial Day weekend at Powerline Park, and Schmitt stated that he will be setting up at Belmont College and OUE again in the coming weeks.
Schmitt explained the need for this petition to be recognized so that the issue can be voted on in the upcoming election. Until something is done legislatively, many patients who could benefit from cannabis are denied it. "Everybody can get (cannabis) on the street," he said, "but the people who really need it can't get it." If the bill should pass, doctors around the state would legally be able to prescribe cannabis to their patients.
Schmitt encourages citizens to educate themselves on the issue and to sign the petition. For more information about the petition and ORG, please visit www.ohiorightsgroup.org. To volunteer for the organization in Belmont County, please contact Schmitt's office at (740) 325-1047.