The Ohio Rights Group has been given the green light to pursue some 385,253 signatures in an effort to put the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment on the ballot. Just last week, Attorney General Mike DeWine certified the group's first 1,000 signatures, prompting a busy campaign ahead. There's a lot of work involved - and a lot of grassroots education needed before the vote. John Pardee, executive president of the group's board of directors, casts a hopeful eye toward the near future and discusses the important aspects of therapeutic cannabis and industrial hemp.
Eric Sandy: So the recent news out of the attorney general's office is pretty great. What's next?
John Pardee: The Ohio Ballot Board is going to review our proposed amendment, like they would any other one. Their function is to determine that any proposed amendment is a single issue. (Note: The board convened and confirmed that matter on May 23.) Some people were wondering if this was two issues, because of the inclusion of industrial hemp.
Obviously, medical marijuana gets the headlines. Could you elaborate on the inclusion of industrial hemp here? What sort of uses are there?
Before I got involved with this, I was a novice on the subject myself. I didn't get involved with this thing until my son was nearly killed in a car accident. With his subsequent pain management needs, he ended up finding cannabis to be effective. As a father, I did my own research because I wasn't sure. We found therapeutic cannabis to be safe and effective, especially as a long-term pain management thing. That led me to becoming an advocate and that dovetailed into learning about the vast economic potential of industrial hemp. What I've learned is that the entirety of the hemp plant has economic value. You have the fibers—and those can be made into very strong, very durable building materials. They can be made into textiles and space-age plastics. Then you have a pulp inside the plant that has a lot of interesting uses. And there's food product that you can get from different parts of the plant, including from the seeds. There's literally 50,000 uses of the hemp plant, and probably thousands more left to be discovered if you were to give entrepreneurial people access to the plant.
Sounds like "jobs, jobs, jobs."
The industrial side of this is, to me, the most important part of our amendment. The state of Ohio is actually uniquely positioned to become a leader in the hemp industry. We're a solid agricultural state. We're also a transportation hub. We have millions of square feet of unused factory floor space. We have one of the strongest research and development sectors in the country—not only for medical research, but also materials research at NASA and whatnot. All these opportunities are right here in Ohio if we have the common sense to pass this measure.
So what kind of work goes into preparing an amendment for all of this?
Well, what we have going on right now is the most up-to-date generation of a lifetime of work for a number of our members. Mary Jane Borden—she's the founder of not only the Ohio Rights Group, but also the Ohio Medical Cannabis Association, which was the previous incarnation of our organization—she's been at this thing for literally decades. She and Donny Wirtshafter—he's kind of our hemp expert. He had a hemp business in Ohio back in the 70s. What MJ—Mary Jane—what she's realized is the fact that all these other states that have passed initiatives have been passing laws. They write really long, really complicated laws—30–, 60–, 80–page laws. When you write a law, and it's regarding a controversial subject, that opens the door for legislators to write trap laws and communities to write home-rule exemptions and courts to strike down certain language. Every Ohioan has the right to life, to liberty, to enjoy happiness, to pursue safety. When you look at everything relative to the cannabis plant, there's nothing there that flies in the face of our constitution. What we believe is that our amendment is actually restoring rights that were taking away by prohibition.
Let's say the amendment is in effect and these rights are restored. What would be the process in terms of acquiring medical and/or therapeutic cannabis?
Well, it establishes within the amendment the time-frame to seat the Ohio Cannabis Control Commission. Initially, the Ohio Rights Group will actually seat a small number of commissioners, then the governor will pick the rest of them. We spell out in the language who is being represented—health care professionals, someone in agriculture, and more. We try to make sure that any interest group that has skin in the game is represented on the commission. From there, it's up to the commission to establish the rules. One thing we're doing differently than, say, California is we're not requiring people to get a physician's authorization. We're establishing the right for citizens to become "qualifying citizens." Look at health care forms: If someone has Crohn's Disease, like myself, there's a certain code on your health insurance forms that identifies a particular ailment. We would basically use that code to determine who is a qualifying citizen and who isn't. You're not going to see people setting up "doc shops," where people basically go to these storefront doctors and get these permissions. It's going to be a lot more professional in the state of Ohio - I can promise you that.
Inevitably, this thing will be put to a vote. In your conversations in Ohio, have you seen any trends regarding more widespread acceptance of this issue?
Absolutely. The Columbus Dispatch commissioned a mayor's poll recently and that really showed us we were on the right track. Therapeutic cannabis was polled at 67 percent or so. Full-legal was in the mid-30s, as far as support. There's popular support for what we're trying to do. Nationally, the majority of Americans also support legalizing marijuana. They realize the drug war has been an absolute, abject failure. The only thing it produced was convicts. It did nothing to curb drug use in general. Prohibition is the exact wrong thing to do when you're concerned about public safety. The best thing to do is to take this huge industry that's currently underground and bring it into the daylight.
So are you looking at this fall, or more toward 2014 for the ballot?
Well, we had some ambitions for 2013. Our whole goal is ASAP. But there are a lot of steps involved in crafting the language and having it vetted and then gathering the signatures and getting them verified. What we would have is roughly a month to get several hundred thousand signatures to qualify for 2013. On top of that, we have a lot of coalitions to build. We need to develop fundraising mechanisms, because we'll be running a statewide campaign. We're laser-focused on 2014, though. I promise that we will be on the ballot in 2014 and we will win.