Ohioans of all races, income levels, educational backgrounds and ideologies tell pollsters that they support allowing Ohio doctors to prescribe marijuana to their patients.
But Gov. Ted Strickland and most Ohio lawmakers don't.
So a medical marijuana bill introduced last week by Rep. Kenny Yuko and a handful of House Democrats has pretty much already gone up in smoke, despite what most Ohioans may think.
A May 2009 Ohio Poll, conducted by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati, found that 73 percent of Ohio adults favored allowing medical marijuana. And earlier this month, a national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press came up with the same results.
So if more than seven out of 10 citizens support Ohio becoming the 15th state to allow medicinal marijuana, why don't more state lawmakers?
Rep. Bob Hagan, a Youngstown-area lawmaker and a co-sponsor of Yuko's bill, said lawmakers are just plain yellow.
"They just aren't brave enough to do it," Hagan said. "There is a real lack of courage on this issue."
The outspoken Democrat, who was the lone lawmaker to support the state's first attempt at medical marijuana legislation back in 2005, said some of the hesitancy may stem from how the issue can be easily twisted.
For example, Hagan said when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Youngstown in 2005, his opponent used his support for medical marijuana to claim that he was for outright pot legalization.
"It wasn't true, but it takes too long to explain and get out the truth," Hagan said. "I think lawmakers are fearful that they will get attacked and won't be able to get the explanation out."
He said several conservative Republican lawmakers have privately told him that they support medical marijuana, but think it is political suicide to back it publicly. But does that perception match the current reality, given the poll numbers?
Republican political consultant Mark Weaver said that the public's view of medical marijuana has changed somewhat because the plant has been successfully branded as a way to help glaucoma and cancer patients.
"I think it's becoming less unpopular. I think the aggregate of attitudes are trending more towards neutral," Weaver said. "And you know, it's a tough economy, and very few people care about marijuana laws."
But he said the medical marijuana issue is a "moving target" because perceptions could shift if more news stories highlighted the ease of obtaining prescriptions in states such as California, which has a fairly lax standard for treatment.
"It's one thing to give it to Grandma that has glaucoma, but if you start seeing stories that show that Grandson is walking down the street with his buddies, and Dr. Feelgood can hand him a prescription and give him marijuana right away, I think people might see it differently," he said.
Ed Orlett, a former lawmaker who helped draft Yuko's bill, said the wink and a nod policy in California is a far cry from what Ohio's bill would put in place. Orlett, the Ohio representative for the California-based Drug Policy Alliance, said that an ongoing relationship with a doctor would be needed to become a certified user, and only sufferers of certain diseases would qualify for medicinal pot.
The bill would let doctor-certified medical marijuana users grow plants, but they would have to be kept in a locked room, greenhouse, garden or other enclosed area out of view.
Despite the safeguards in the bill, Yuko could find his support of it becoming an issue as the Richmond Heights Democrat runs for re-election in his overwhelmingly Democratic district.
His Republican opponent, Tony Hocevar, sent an e-mail around to some supporters last week suggesting that Yuko was "not thinking clearly" to sponsor the bill and asking, "Could it be something he is smoking?"
Hocevar said he wasn't accusing Yuko of smoking pot, but was trying to suggest the medical marijuana issue should be discussed.
"I'm just questioning if this is something the community wants," he said. "I think that is a question that is out there for discussion."
Yuko -- who has multiple sclerosis but isn't seeking to use marijuana for his condition -- said he isn't worried about being attacked for pushing what he sees as a quality-of-life issue for sick Ohioans.
"I don't think I'm hurting my chances of re-election; I think I'm growing a fan club," he said. "I'm just standing up for what a majority of Ohioans believe in."
Although the federal government decided last October to ease up on prosecuting patients using medical marijuana, Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati-area Republican known for his libertarian views on many issues, said federal law still prohibits it, and that keeps him in the opposition column.
"The key to this is the federal government," Seitz said. "If they get the hell out of this role and turn this over to the states to let them decide if they want to have medical marijuana, I think this would pass in the legislature. It would at least overcome my objection, I can tell you that."
Of course, some lawmakers simply oppose the medicinal use of marijuana for any number of reasons.
Amanda Wurst, a spokeswoman for Strickland, said the Democratic governor hasn't seen Yuko's bill, but thinks medical marijuana laws are unnecessary.
"The governor feels that the predominant opinion of the medical community is that there are existing medicines available that provide appropriate patient care," Wurst said. "So based on that opinion and the current research, he feels this type of legislation doesn't seem necessary or warranted."
Senate President Bill Harris, an Ashland Republican, also opposes the legislation, while House Speaker Armond Budish, a Beachwood Democrat, wouldn't commit to a stance. His spokesman Keary McCarthy said Budish will wait until the bill comes out of committee to consider its merits.
Strickland's concerns over the medical necessity of marijuana dovetail with those expressed by other opponents of the legislation, such as Patricia Harmon, executive director of the Drug Free Action Alliance, who thinks marijuana needs to go through the formal scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration.
Given all the opposition from elected officials, it might be easier for medical marijuana backers to get an issue on the state ballot. But Orlett predicted Ohio will wait behind other states before a multi-million dollar pot ballot push happens here because of those lawmaker attitudes.
"There are other states where the overall climate and the attitude of the legislature is better, so that the opposition isn't going to be quite as strong as it would be here," he said.
By Aaron Marshall
April 11, 2010
The Plain Dealer
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Most Ohioans support medical marijuana, but state lawmakers shy away