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Ohio's marijuana legalization effort is dividing conservative groups

 Citizens for Christian Virtue oppose legalizing marijuana at the Ohio Statehouse
Dan Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
Citizens for Christian Virtue oppose legalizing marijuana at the Ohio Statehouse

A battle over whether to legalize marijuana is taking shape at the Ohio Statehouse. The lines are being drawn and groups that usually support each other on issues are finding they are at odds on this one.

Ohio lawmakers are now considering three proposals to legalize marijuana. Two are sponsored by lawmakers themselves, a Democratic bill and a Republican measure. The other is an initiated statute brought by an outside group, Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. If lawmakers don’t pass it, that organization could gather signatures and take it to voters, perhaps this year.

The conservative Center for Christian Virtue said it is poised to fight efforts to legalize cannabis in Ohio. Its leader, Aaron Baer, said the group opposed the failed 2018 attempt to legalize pot and will fight again.

“The marijuana industry is not going to be able to fool another state, is not going to be able to fool Ohioans with their lies and their empty promises of what marijuana will do for our state. The tax revenue is not true. The harmless effect of it is not true. The reality – it brings devastation,” Baer said.

Debates over public safety
One key issue Baer and his group are hammering – public safety. Corrine Gasper of Delaware County lost her 22-year-old daughter in a car crash in 2012, when a driver high on pot ran through a stop sign, causing the fatal crash.

“Jennifer’s life came to a screeching halt. She was killed due to the criminal and irresponsible act of one man driving impaired on marijuana. He admitted using marijuana that day. The people at the scene said he was so impaired, his eyes were totally glazed over. And as he exited his car, barely scathed, he said he didn’t even know what happened. He didn’t even know another car was involved,” Gasper said.

The Center for Christian Virtue said there will be more impaired drivers on the roads in Ohio if the state legalizes marijuana.

Baer quotes a stat from the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area that shows marijuana-related traffic deaths in Colorado increased from 15% in 2013 to 25% in 2019. However, the Colorado Department of Transportation said 8% of fatal crashes involve drivers who are high on marijuana.

A study from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration last fall showed that driving under the influence of drugs is a rising factor in more car crashes, but that includes all drugs, not just marijuana.

Another conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, disagrees with CCV. Donovan O’Neil said his group supports many of CCV’s efforts but on this one, he said it’s time to legalize cannabis.

“We’ve criminalized marijuana use and yet we still see that rise in opioid addiction and abuse happen in our state. I think it’s time for a different approach. A lot of those talking points are 1980’s, 1970’s talking points,” he said.

O’Neil said his group would prefer to see lawmakers pass a bill already under consideration but would back legislators if they choose to move the outside group’s plan. And if this goes to the ballot, he said Americans for Prosperity will work to pass it.

Pastor Derrick Anderson, who preaches at a baptist church in Youngstown said keeping marijuana illegal makes the public less safe.

“We’re seeing how if you criminalize it if you make it like it is such a terrible monster. It seems like the crime situation increases,” Anderson said.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the group that’s brought forward the initiated statute, said in a written statement that CCV is misleading the public in an attempt to turn into a “culture war” debate to help them fundraise. Spokesman Tom Haren also notes that hasn’t worked in 18 other states that have legalized marijuana.

“This nonsense is the last dying gasp of prohibition, trotting out the same old debunked talking points based on statistics taken out of context," Haren said. "CCV has been out of touch with Ohio’s voters on this issue for years. So, rather than engage in good faith, they are misleading the public in an attempt to turn this into a ‘culture war’ debate to help them fundraise."

In the next three months, Ohio lawmakers will have to decide where they stand. For Republicans especially, they might find it’s not so easy when they have friendly forces on both sides of it.

Copyright 2022 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.