December 21, 2014

Elyria
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Amherst family embraces fight to legalize marijuana

Former Amherst resident Jason Pardee with some of the marijuana he grows in California. COURTESY PHOTOS

Former Amherst resident Jason Pardee with some of the marijuana he grows in California. COURTESY PHOTOS

Jason Pardee considers himself a medical refugee.

The 27-year-old Amherst native now lives in the San Bernardino Mountains of California, where he grows and smokes marijuana, activities illegal under both federal and Ohio law.

“I need to smoke pretty much every day because I do have chronic pain,” Pardee said.

California is one of 20 states, along with the District of Columbia, that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use or both.

If Pardee’s father, John Pardee, has his way, Ohio will join the ranks of medical marijuana states after the November election.

To make the fall ballot, Pardee’s organization, the Ohio Rights Group, must come up with the valid signatures of 385,247 registered voters from 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties by July 2.

At the moment, they have about 50,000 signatures, said Lorain County Commissioner Ted Kalo, who is among those backing the push for a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana and industrial hemp in the Buckeye State.

There are other medical marijuana proposals out there, but John Pardee said the one his organization is backing has the best chance of making the ballot.

“We’re the only game in town that has any shot in 2014,” he said.

Broken body

Jason Pardee readily admits that in his youth, he smoked pot purely for fun. But that was before his life and his relationship with the drug changed in January 2008.

Pardee said he was attending art school in Sarasota, Fla., at the time and was heading to a record store to sell some old CDs when his car was broadsided by a vehicle driven by a teenage girl.

The 2008 crash in which Jason Pardee was seriously injured.

The 2008 crash in which Jason Pardee was seriously injured.

His injuries, he said, were severe — a shattered pelvis, broken ribs and punctured lungs that kept him in a medically-induced coma for two weeks while doctors began putting him back together. His pelvis took more than a dozen pins and screws to reconstruct and he had to learn to walk again.

He said he was given traditional painkillers to ease the agony, but those came with their own set of problems, including the risk of addiction.

But then he tried marijuana and the pain went away without side effects, Pardee said. His father, he recalled, was not happy.

John Pardee doesn’t dispute that he used to be on the other side of the medical marijuana issue, describing his mindset at the time as that of a “devoted skeptic.”

“When I found him using it daily, that was my understanding of someone who’s got a problem,” he said. “That was the beginning of my education.”

Jason Pardee, who graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2011, said he ultimately decided to put aside his childhood dream of becoming an artist and cartoonist to focus on dealing with his pain.

In 2012, he moved to California, where he said he breaks even growing marijuana and tries to be “as rugged as possible” now that he’s shed the canes and walkers that he once relied on. He skateboards, surfs and hikes, but the pain is always there.

“I still feel old, unfortunately,” Pardee said.

His father supports him and that means trying to change Ohio law so his son can come home.

“He’s obviously my son and I didn’t want him living illegally, so I got involved,” said John Pardee, an environmental consultant living in Amherst.

Law of the land

Under federal law, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, which means that it has a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical benefit, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration website. Marijuana is in the same category as heroin, ecstasy and LSD.

By comparison, less regulated Schedule II drugs include cocaine, methamphetamines and fentanyl, a painkiller that caused a rash of overdoses, including some deaths, in Lorain County late last year. Schedule II drugs are considered dangerous, but have less potential for abuse than Schedule I drugs, according to the DEA.

John Pardee of the Ohio Rights Group discusses efforts to get a medical marijuana issue on the November ballot.

John Pardee of the Ohio Rights Group discusses efforts to get a medical marijuana issue on the November ballot.

John Pardee said the idea that marijuana is highly addictive is ridiculous.

“You don’t see people using cannabis having that screaming need to feed their habit,” he said.

Possession of marijuana remains illegal under Ohio law, but possession of less than 100 grams is considered a minor misdemeanor, the legal equivalent of a traffic ticket.

Elyria City Prosecutor Matt Mishak said the penalty is a fine of up to $150 and a mandatory six-month driver’s license suspension. The same penalties are applied to those convicted of possession of drug paraphernalia.

Although the driver’s license suspension accompanies any drug conviction, the other penalties grow increasingly severe the larger the quantity of marijuana. Get caught with enough weed and Ohio residents can face lengthy mandatory prison sentences.

Kenneth Lieux, an Elyria defense attorney, said it makes little sense to impose a driving penalty on someone arrested on marijuana charges. He also said that a marijuana conviction comes with a host of other problems beyond the penalties imposed by the courts.

Lieux said a marijuana conviction can prevent people from getting federal student aid and can impact job prospects, especially when it comes up in background checks listed as “drug abuse” or “drug possession” charges.

“If a prospective employer is doing a background check and sees it, they may think it’s worse than it is,” said Lieux, who supports legalization.

Howard Rahtz, the former commander of the vice squad in Cincinnati now working as an author and speaker on legalization for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said there’s a stigma that comes from a drug conviction, even for marijuana, that never goes away.

“You can get over an addiction, but you can’t get over a conviction,” said Rahtz, who was a drug counselor before becoming a police officer.

Nationwide there were 749,825 people arrested on marijuana-related charges in 2012. Of those arrests, 658,231, or nearly 88 percent, were for possession, reported the Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-legalization group.

In 2013, Elyria Municipal Court handled 102 minor misdemeanor marijuana cases that originated from Elyria police alone, according to figures provided by Elyria Clerk of Courts Eric Rothgery’s office. When other communities in the jurisdiction of Elyria Municipal Court — North Ridgeville, Grafton, LaGrange and Carlisle, Columbia, Eaton, Elyria, Grafton and LaGrange townships — were included, the number rose to 303 cases.

Police opposition

Rahtz’s position puts him at odds with many in the law enforcement community, including Lorain County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Dennis Cavanaugh, commander of the Lorain County Drug Task Force.

Cavanaugh said he is adamantly opposed to legalization, which he believes will create a large number of problems, just as he believes it has in other states that now have legalized pot.

“It certainly has the potential to be abused and get out of control,” he said.

Cavanaugh said states that have already legalized marijuana in some form have seen an uptick in problems ranging from drugged driving to increased marijuana usage.

According to a report on the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, prepared by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, between 2006 and 2011, traffic fatalities in that state dropped 16 percent. But the report said that fatalities involving drivers testing positive for marijuana increased 114 percent in that same timeframe.

Lieux said it’s hard to accurately discern whether someone is actually stoned. While a breath or blood test can determine if someone is drunk, the same isn’t true of marijuana use, he said.

Because marijuana can remain in a user’s system for up to 30 days, there’s no real way to determine when that person smoked pot, Lieux said. He said there are efforts underway to find a way to establish whether a marijuana user shouldn’t be behind the wheel, but so far no definitive test exists.

The length of time that marijuana can linger in the body is one of the chief concerns of many on both sides of the issue because of the impact a positive drug test can have on someone’s job, particularly in the age of the Drug Free Workplace and similar initiatives.

Marijuana was found recently by auto repair shop employees in a spare tire in Amherst Township. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

Marijuana was found recently by auto repair shop employees in a spare tire in Amherst Township. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

Lorain County Commissioner Tom Williams, who signed Kalo’s petition but opposes legalization, said drugged driving is one of his main worries about the idea. Figuring out who’s too high to drive would require a whole new method of testing and he isn’t certain that’s the best use of government resources.

Cavanaugh also said he thinks that legalizing marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, would lead to more crimes, including burglaries as users try to get enough money to buy more of the drug. He said that’s what law enforcement already has to deal with when it comes to other drug addicts and the problem would only get worse with legalization.

“I do think your crime rate’s going up,” he said.

He and other critics also worry that legalization would lead to more access to the drug for youths.

The Rocky Mountain report said that in 2011, the national average of 12-to-17-year-olds smoking marijuana was

7.64 percent, the highest that figure had been since 1981. The report said that in Colorado, the average percentage of youth in that age group using pot was 10.72 percent.

Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will, himself a retired Elyria police officer, said he has concerns about how legal marijuana would be handled in Ohio based on what he’s seen in other states.

For instance, he said dispensaries in Colorado are still struggling to figure out how to handle their massive cash flow because of federal regulations that largely prohibit banks from knowingly taking money made from drug sales. He said that has led to those running marijuana businesses becoming robbery targets because of the large amounts of cash they often have with them or at their homes or businesses.

“To me, it’s not a simple yes or no answer to a question,” Will said. “If you’re going to look at this as a policy decision, you better look at everything.”

Black market controversy

Another concern for Cavanaugh is that police now find themselves having to combat high-grade marijuana coming out of states where the drug is legally grown. Although most marijuana is more potent than it was in the 1960s heyday of the hippies, he said legally grown marijuana can pack quite a punch for users, making it more sought after.

Cavanaugh said states that have legalized marijuana in one form or another have become supply hubs for states that still have full prohibition. He said that’s because the quality of the product is so much better than what people might otherwise be able to acquire on the black market.

He said medical marijuana sells for between $3,000 and $3,500 per pound on the street, while regular marijuana is going for about $1,500 a pound.

The Rocky Mountain report said that between 2005 and 2008, yearly seizures involving weed exported from Colorado grew from an average of 2,220 pounds to 3,937 pounds. A total of 7,008 pounds of Colorado weed was seized by law enforcement in 2012.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service also has seen an increase in Colorado pot being sent through the mail. In 2010, 57 pounds of Colorado marijuana was intercepted in the mail, the Rocky Mountain report said. In 2012, the figure was 262 pounds.

Cavanaugh said he doesn’t believe marijuana can ever be fully contained, but it can and should be controlled as much as possible, something that will become more difficult if medical marijuana proponents have their way.

“You’re still going to have the black market,” he said.

It’s one of the few areas where Cavanaugh and John Pardee agree.

The existence of the black market, Pardee said, is why more people are focused on medical marijuana rather than recreational use.

“People who want recreational marijuana can already get it,” Pardee said. “Everybody’s got a dude.”

Rahtz, the former vice cop turned marijuana advocate, believes that legalizing pot would actually cripple the cartels who supply the drug.

“If we take marijuana sales away from them, they will suffer a 60 percent loss of revenue,” Rahtz said. “I don’t know how many businesses can deal with losing 60 percent of their business.”

Taking marijuana off the black market, he said, also would dramatically reduce the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, not just on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, but on the streets of the nation as well.

Public support

The shift in public perceptions of marijuana, once vilified in anti-drug movies such as “Reefer Madness,” has accelerated in recent years.

According to a poll from Quinnipiac University released in February, 87 percent of Ohioans support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. The same poll found that 51 percent of Ohioans support legalizing possession for personal use, while 44 percent oppose it.

The poll also found that 55 percent of Ohio voters, including 54 percent of voters under age 30, said they haven’t tried marijuana.

Polls, of course, can vary. Take for instance, the differences between two surveys on marijuana usage conducted by two polling organizations last year.

A 2013 Gallup poll on consumption habits found that 38 percent of Americans admit to having used marijuana. A Pew Research Center survey, also conducted last year, found that 48 percent of adults said they have tried marijuana.

Despite polls showing the vast majority of Ohioans favor legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, Jason Pardee isn’t optimistic about the chances that it will get on the ballot this year.

“To me it’s the reality of Ohioans and their pre-existing judgments of cannabis,” he said.

The younger Pardee said even those who smoke pot can’t come out and say so because they’ll face criminal penalties. He said the general public would be surprised to learn who secretly smokes pot.

State Rep. Matt Lundy, D-Elyria, said he knows a lot of people want to see marijuana legalized, even if he doesn’t personally support the idea.

He said he’s received numerous anonymous letters from people urging him to support legalization. He said the letters often begin in the same way, with people writing, “Matt, you know me and I smoke marijuana.”

Rahtz said politically marijuana legalization remains a hard sell for politicians seeking re-election.

“We’ve got a bunch of timid politicians who are afraid of being called soft on drugs or soft on crime,” he said.

He said it’s especially frustrating for him to see politicians, such as President Barack Obama, who have smoked marijuana, continue to fight against legalization, even though they themselves broke drug laws in their youth.

Obama himself said earlier this year in an interview with The New Yorker that while he doesn’t believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol, he doesn’t support legalization. Obama was critical in that same interview of how marijuana arrests disproportionally affect poor minorities.

Cavanaugh said he thinks marijuana use knows no class or racial boundaries.

“I don’t think it’s a racial thing,” he said. “It’s across the board.”

Gin or joint

The question of just how dangerous marijuana is remains a key divide between those who support legalization and those who oppose it.

Will said although marijuana may be comparable to alcohol as many argue, it’s not without its problems. For instance, he said, there are high levels of carcinogens that enter the body any time somebody smokes marijuana, just as there are when somebody inhales cigarette smoke.

Tim Williams, coordinator for Communities That Care, which is part of the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board of Lorain County, said his organization opposes legalization for recreational purposes and believes there needs to be more medical studies before marijuana is classified as a medication.

He said all drugs should be treated the same and marijuana should have to undergo the same rigorous testing that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uses when evaluating other potential medications.

“Our view is it’s a very dangerous, highly addictive drug and should be governed by the FDA,” he said.

Nick Kostandaras, a Summit County Council member and president of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, said he experienced the pain of losing someone to drugs firsthand when his 36-year-old niece died last October.

“I had a niece in Lorain County that expired from drugs. First marijuana, then heroin,” he said.

Kostandaras, a former police officer, said he has appointed a committee to examine the issue, even though he opposes legalization.

“My personal opinion, I’m diametrically opposed to the marijuana issue,” he said.

John Pardee said the dangers of marijuana have been exaggerated for years and that demonization can actually be dangerous. He said telling kids marijuana is just as bad as heroin can lead them to try harder drugs if they figure out they’ve been deceived about marijuana.

“It’s less addictive than coffee,” Pardee said. “It’s one of those things that has no business being prohibited.”

Cavanaugh said he believes marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs because most of those he’s encountered in other drug investigations have used marijuana as well.

“But that doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to go on to harder drugs,” he said.

Medical uses

The list of ailments that marijuana can purportedly treat is far larger than the pain that stills wracks Jason Pardee’s body.

The ballot issue lists a string of medical conditions it states marijuana would be legal to treat if passed, including glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s disease, hepatitis C, sickle cell anemia, cancer and Tourette syndrome. It can be used to control pain, nausea and seizures, John Pardee said.

John Pardee said one of the diseases that marijuana can help treat is Parkinson’s, which claimed the life of his father.

He said his father died a “horrible death” from the disease even as he refused to take a medical marijuana pill that would have eased his symptoms because of the “lies he had been told.”

“He refused to take a pill that would have helped him,” John Pardee said.

Commissioner Tom Williams said he would support a pill that gives the painkilling effect of marijuana without the side effects or high that comes from smoking or eating pot.

“It doesn’t give you the high, it relieves the pain,” he said.

Will said he has concerns about whether there’s enough information out there to justify legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.

“The problem is you don’t have enough documentation to put together a really good study,” he said.

Don Attie, a prominent veteran in Lorain County, said he would like to see marijuana legalized because he thinks it can help veterans suffering from a range of issues, including depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Is it a silver bullet? No, but there is a lot of good potential,” he said.

Economic interests

Attie said legalizing marijuana would do more than just help the sick.

“The bottom line is all about helping people, but also stimulating the economy,” he said.

According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, that state brought in nearly $8.7 million in taxes on marijuana in January, the first month of full legalization there.

County Commissioner Ted Kalo, right, and John Pardee of the Ohio Rights Group discuss efforts to get a medical marijuana issue on the November ballot. They talk Wednesday at the Lorain County Administration Building. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

County Commissioner Ted Kalo, right, and John Pardee of the Ohio Rights Group discuss efforts to get a medical marijuana issue on the November ballot. They talk Wednesday at the Lorain County Administration Building. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

Kalo said it’s the economics of the issue that makes him support legalization. He said Colorado is seeing a massive windfall of marijuana tax money, much of which will go to build new schools there.

That kind of money, he said could do wonders for cash-strapped local governments. Lorain County has slashed millions from its budget in recent years, in part due to cutbacks in local government money flowing from Columbus. The commissioners have failed repeatedly to convince Lorain County voters to pass a sales tax increase.

“Then we have the dollars to expand government services,” Kalo said of legalization.

Kalo and other local leaders had hoped that revenue from casinos would offset some of their recent losses, but the money that has come in so far has been less than what was predicted. Part of the problem, he said, is that Ohio waited so long to bring casinos in that by the time it happened, all the surrounding states already had casinos, reducing the tourism draw.

With Michigan already a medical marijuana state, Kalo fears the same thing happening.

“If Ohio doesn’t move forward in 2014, it’s going to be a lot like the casino issue,” he said.

Kalo also said that legalization would free up law enforcement resources to focus on more serious crimes. More than 70 percent of the county’s general fund budget goes into the criminal justice system.

Proponents also contend the state would see an economic boost from industrial hemp, which remains largely illegal to produce in the United States because the plant is a close cousin of the cannabis plant that produces marijuana.

Industrial hemp can be used to create products including paper, cloth and rope. It can also be used in plastics, building materials and other industries.

John Pardee said Ohio is poised to become an “industrial juggernaut” if industrial hemp becomes legal because of its status as an agricultural state with expertise in research and transportation.

“The best way to take the rust off the Rust Belt is to bring industrial hemp to the Midwest,” he said.

Even Williams, the commissioner who opposes marijuana legalization, said he’s intrigued by the possibility of industrial hemp, although he admits he hasn’t done much research on the issue.

“Based upon the wide variety of uses for it, it’s something that should be considered, but it would have to be well regulated,” Williams said.

Critics of legalization said they aren’t sold on the idea even if it means an influx of cash.

“I understand where Ted’s coming from with it, but at what expense?” Kostandaras said.

Cavanaugh said he too doubts the tradeoff would be worth it.

“We’re going to legalize something we know is going to cause us problems just for money?” he said.

While there hasn’t been much support for his effort this year from nationwide marijuana advocates, John Pardee said legalization is just a matter of time in Ohio.

Given Ohio’s status as a bellwether of national political opinion, Pardee said he thinks the state would be a key win for the movement.

“If we flip Ohio, that’s the beginning of prohibition’s end,” he said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.