Up in smoke

From the October 2010 edition

Brandy Zink, who grew up in Westerville, says she was 12 years old when she took a drag off her first joint at, of all places, a church camp. She liked it. So she’s kept smoking the stuff, pretty steadily, since she was 14. But it wasn’t all about getting high (although she acknowledges that was part of the appeal when she was young). It’s also because it helps combat the effects of her epilepsy, which she’s struggled with since birth. Over the years, she’s found that it has eased muscle pain, reduced stuttering and prevented seizures. “I notice that when I have access to cannabis, I don’t have seizures, but when I don’t, I do,” she says. It’s been so effective, she’s ditched her other medicine.

She used to obtain marijuana through the black market and people she calls compassionate caregivers. Zink knew, however, that using pot in Ohio made her a criminal. “Can you imagine living with a debilitating medical condition and then on top of it, being worried about being arrested?” she says.

After years of choosing between being in pain or fearing that she’d get caught using marijuana to alleviate the discomfort, Zink, 33, decided to leave her Ohio home. She now lives and works in Michigan, where she possesses a card that allows her to smoke dope legally.

Democratic state Rep. Kenny Yuko says Zink is not the only one who’s moving out of Ohio to go to Michigan and the 13 other states (plus the District of Columbia) where medical marijuana is legal. Yuko, who represents a district near Cleveland, says it’s unfair that Ohioans are leaving their families just so they can legally use cannabis for their medical conditions. He’s sponsoring a bill that would make medical marijuana legal, allowing Ohioans to register with the state and get a prescription from a doctor. In return, they could possess and use small amounts of marijuana obtained with a prescription from a state-approved dispensary.

Yuko himself has multiple sclerosis, but he says he’s never smoked cannabis so he doesn’t know if it would help his condition. But he says he’s hearing heartbreaking stories from senior citizens smoking marijuana to relieve pain when prescription drugs fail. And Yuko is convinced legally allowing people to smoke marijuana for medical purposes is the right thing to do.

Fellow Democratic state Rep. Bob Hagan, who has sponsored bills similar to Yuko’s throughout the past decade, also is convinced. But Hagan, who represents Youngstown, is one of the few lawmakers who supports Yuko’s bill. Gov. Ted Strickland opposes it, as do the majority of legislators on both sides of the aisle. Hagan says he thinks the opposition to the bill is based in politics. “Some of my more conservative colleagues in the legislature think it, in their area, would not sell,” Hagan explains. He says those lawmakers are afraid it would come back to bite them in the next election.

But recent polls show those reluctant lawmakers might be wrong if they think voters oppose the idea. The Ohio Poll, conducted in May 2009, found that 73 percent of Ohioans favor (either strongly or somewhat strongly) allowing Ohio doctors to prescribe medical marijuana. The bigger source of concern, Hagan says, is not necessarily the voters themselves, but campaign contributions. Hagan explains pharmaceutical companies consistently have opposed his medical marijuana bills, noting employees of those big businesses give a lot of money to politicians. Lawmakers might fear losing those contributions or, even worse, find themselves the target of an independent campaign sponsored by drug companies who oppose medical marijuana.

Groups that have fought against drug abuse historically also are speaking out against Yuko’s bill. Patricia Harmon, the executive director of the Drug Free Action Alliance, says allowing medical marijuana in Ohio would be a bad idea. Harmon’s group takes the position that voter or legislative initiatives, such as the ones that have been used to allow medical marijuana in other states, do not meet the scientific standards for approval of medicine. “We believe any drug, marijuana included, should go through the same testing and research that other potential medicines are put through,” she says. That means following the testing procedures set out by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

And Harmon cites a long list of other reasons. She points out the scientific research on the efficacy of marijuana as medicine is limited. She also explains major organizations representing medical professionals, such as the American Medical Association, do not support using smoked marijuana as medicine. In addition, since pot plants vary in strength, medical marijuana patients might not know how much of the drug they are getting into their system. Then there’s the question of the way the drug is administered. “There needs to be an established method of administration. I don’t know of another drug that’s smoked,” Harmon explains.

A synthetic version of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, currently is legal for use in Ohio and prescribed by doctors. Harmon says her group has no qualms about supporting that drug—marketed under the name Marinol—because it has gone through the testing process established for prescription drugs.

Mary Jane Borden, a drug policy activist in Westerville, has been fighting for Ohioans’ rights to use marijuana for medical purposes for more than a decade. She says there’s a lot of new research that shows cannabis, in its natural form, has anti-cancer properties. She sees medical marijuana as a viable alternative for many Ohioans now taking powerful, often addictive narcotics. Borden, who suffers from a rare genetic disease, says the research is quickly evolving and she’s listed much of it on her website, drugwarfacts.com.

It’s time for Ohio lawmakers “to get past our biases” against cannabis usage for medical conditions, says Borden, who’s not leaving Ohio for a state that already allows medical marijuana. She says she wants to stay and fight for the right to use it. “When things change here in Ohio, I want to be here for it . . . for that celebration,” she says.

Borden won’t be celebrating any time soon. Yuko’s bill is expected to die at the end of the year when the 128th General Assembly comes to a close. But Yuko and Hagan aren’t discouraged. Although they know the bill is a losing proposition, they realize Ohio faces a tight budget. Hagan explains if marijuana were legal for medical purposes, the state could discover a much-needed new revenue stream by taxing it. Yuko says he’s asked for information to determine how much income medical marijuana would generate, but he’s yet to get a good answer.

Both say, however, this fight is not about money. To them, it’s about good options for people in pain. They hear the stories every day from Ohioans who think they would be helped by using marijuana for their illnesses. And it’s those stories that keep Yuko fighting.

“They tell you not to give up, not to be discouraged, to be determined, to be a fighter and challenge the system,” he says. “It’s frankly like going against a brick wall. But it’s something I’m not going to give up on because there are a whole lot of people counting on us.”

Jo Ingles is a correspondent for the Ohio Public Radio/TV Statehouse News Bureau.

This story appeared in the September 2010 issue of Columbus Monthly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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