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$20M push to legalize marijuana rolls toward vote in Ohio

| Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

WYANDOT COUNTY, Ohio — The 21-foot neon green Freelander RV with a marijuana leaf plastered on the side pulled up a block from the Wyandot County Courthouse. Four campaign workers clad in jeans emerged to set up signs emblazoned with dollar figures, maps and flowcharts about the proposed regulatory system that could allow Ohio to become the nation's largest state to legalize marijuana.

This stop in Upper Sandusky marks Responsible Ohio's seventh on a 12-week tour through all 88 counties. The well-funded, controversial campaign is trying to rally support behind a November ballot initiative to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in the Buckeye State.

If it passes, Ohio would seesaw from outlawing marijuana use to permitting it entirely.

“Having a conversation with voters, I think, is going to be really important,” spokeswoman Faith Oltman said. “We think people will be excited about legalization, and we've gotten a really good response so far.”

Responsible Ohio is behind Issue 3, a ballot question that would establish 10 grow sites, controlled by predetermined investors, and an avenue to purchase marijuana in Ohio. The state would be the first to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in one step, but passage is far from certain.

Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have legal recreational marijuana. Ballot initiatives are under way for 2016 in other states, including Massachusetts, Arizona and Nevada.

In Upper Sandusky, for the first 45 minutes no one stops to talk to the campaign. One who noticed the display is Sheriff Michael Hetzel, a four-decade veteran of the department whose office is around the corner. He opposes the measure.

Tommy Catawba, 59, rolled up on his bike, relating a story about getting busted for possession in 1975.

“I think the whole country should have it legal,” he said. “It helps with pain, with stress.”

The campaign staff chats with Catawba. A driver in a white minivan stopped at the intersection gives a thumbs up and shouts her support. Then it's time to load up the signs and drive south. Two more stops to make where the nation's debate over legal marijuana is unfolding on street corners.

Kick-starting an industry

National pro-legalization groups are wary of endorsing Ohio's ballot measure. A counter-initiative to outlaw monopolies in the state constitution is on the Nov. 3 ballot. Supporters contend it would cancel out Responsible Ohio's plan.

Central to the criticism is the proposal to hand oversight of the preliminary facilities to the initiative's wealthy backers, who include football player Frostee Rucker, basketball Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, fashion designer Nanette Lepore and community leader Barbara Gould in addition to real estate developers, finance executives and philanthropists.

The campaign expects to spend at least $20 million through November.

Oltman said the initiative used a consultant to help find investors who wanted to get in on the industry's start.

“We started looking into the industry and to this amendment process a year or so ago, and were really looking for folks to invest and really kick-start a whole new industry,” she said. “People who are willing to put a lot of money on the line, reputations on the line and possibly go to federal prison.”

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, classified as a Schedule I drug along with heroin and Ecstasy. The Drug Enforcement Administration considers these drugs the most dangerous, eliciting “potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.”

Impaired drivers a worry

State laws vary across the country for medical and recreational purchase of marijuana. A user can be arrested for the substance on one side of a border, or prescribed and taxed in another. This disparity led attorneys general in Nebraska and Oklahoma to team up to file a lawsuit against Colorado, claiming the product was trafficked across state lines.

Residents in Pennsylvania can find laws in other states that are favorable to different interests — such as the notorious “bootleggers” who cross borders to Maryland or Delaware to purchase wine and liquor in a private store for less. To buy Roman candles and other explosives deemed illegal in the commonwealth, Pittsburgh residents can drive 60 minutes to Boardman, Ohio, where Pennsylvania plates are a common sight in the parking lot of the mammoth Phantom Fireworks.

Marijuana is trafficked illegally through Pennsylvania, said Erie County Assistant District Attorney Nate Strasser. The county includes a stretch of Interstate 90, where cross-country travelers carrying marijuana prescriptions from states such as Colorado or California have been charged with possession.

“It's still illegal in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania under any circumstances,” Strasser said.

Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone declined to speculate on what Ohio legalization might mean for marijuana users here, but said he would be concerned about impaired drivers.

“It's still illegal here,” he said. “You can't use it here until the Legislature changes the law.”

Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, is a leader of Pennsylvania's movement to legalize medical marijuana. He does not favor the regulatory system outlined in Responsible Ohio's initiative, preferring a competitive application process for licensure.

Still, passage could net positives for Pennsylvania, he said.

“Every state that eliminates it, it will be one more crack in the wall until we reach a tipping point,” Leach said. “Hopefully, it would provide some appetite for our legislative process to move a little more quickly to get people medicine they desperately need.”

Or, Leach said, residents who seek marijuana for personal use could travel to Ohio. The nation — and Pennsylvania — see occasional headlines about “refugees” who leave their home states to live where the drug is legal, he noted.

Law enforcement warnings

The challenge for Responsible Ohio is translating public support for marijuana to votes. A poll by Quinnipiac University in April showed 52 percent of Ohio residents support allowing recreational use, and 84 percent support allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana as medicine.

The group's first televised ad showed an endorsement from a retired Cincinnati police captain, but other law enforcement agencies warn of increased abuse.

Hetzel, the Wyandot County sheriff, does not think voters will approve the law. At least, he hopes they don't.

He scoffed at the campaign's moniker and called it misleading, saying drug-related crime drives 80 percent to 90 percent of his office's investigations.

Hetzel views marijuana as a gateway drug that leads to worse vices. The sheriff said he has seen cocaine and heroin addicts come through the penal system who began by using marijuana.

“People just don't use heroin the first time,” Hetzel said. “They started with marijuana. The social impact you're going to get from legal marijuana is going to continue.”

At Responsible Ohio's stop in Marion, a larger city with a more diverse population, noon church bells chimed from a nearby Methodist church as the van rolled into a public parking lot.

Fifty feet away was the entrance to the Marion County Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services. This summer, more than 50 Marion-area residents died from a bad batch of heroin.

During the first three minutes of its arrival, the bus elicited two horn honks, a peace sign and a single boo. During the 60-minute stop, about two dozen residents — a mix of ages and races — stopped to snap photos or ask questions.

Brandy Hedrickson, 31, of Marion had heard about Responsible Ohio through news reports. When she walked down Church Street, she saw the bus and asked how residents would be able to purchase marijuana.

She has friends and family members who she thinks would smoke legal marijuana to ease eating disorders and stress-related pains. The drug, she said, would not be as harmful as prescription pills that cause addiction.

“It might motivate me to vote,” Hedrickson said. “This would be my first time.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Ericka Buford of Columbus sets up a sign during Responsible Ohio's campaign stop to promote the passage of a marijuana legalization ballot initiative in Marion on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Marion resident Joshua Casey checks out Responsible Ohio's campaign stop promoting the passage of a marijuana legalization ballot initiative in Marion on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Responsible Ohio spokeswoman Faith Oltman (left) speaks to Marion resident Lindsay Miracle during a campaign stop to promote the passage of a marijuana legalization ballot initiative in Marion on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015. Miracle says she plans to vote in favor of legalization.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Marion resident Edith Straw holds her granddaughter Leo´nna Cramer, 2, while stopping by Responsible Ohio's campaign stop to promote the passage of a marijuana legalization ballot initiative in Marion on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Michael McGovern, of Columbus, sets up a sign during Responsible Ohio's campaign stop promoting the passage of a marijuana legalization ballot initiative in Marion on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Tommy Catawba, an Upper Sandusky native, stopped by Responsible Ohio's campaign stop promoting the passage of a marijuana legalization ballot initiative in Upper Sandusky on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.
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