Two friends from southern Ohio were among the first people in line when Colorado's retail marijuana shops opened for business this month, and legalization of the drug in two U.S. states could attract more Ohioans to head West.
The marijuana experiment in Colorado and Washington is unprecedented, and government officials are unsure how much of a draw legalized pot will be for tourists and migrants, and how it will impact legalization movements in other states.
But local advocates of legalization said they have grown impatient because Ohio is behind the times since it has not changed its marijuana laws even though 21 states have approved the drug for medicinal use while others have or may soon allow it for recreational use.
Some advocates said they will move to places where the plant is legal for purchase if Ohio's laws are not reformed. Others said they plan to visit states where marijuana is legal as tourists, partly because they can use the drug for pleasure or treating their medical problems.
"If we do not get it on the ballot here by 2014, I will move," said Kathy Skidmore, 60, a retired nurse in Cincinnati, who says marijuana helps her manage pain.
But some prevention experts said marijuana is a harmful drug and legalizing it is a dangerous idea, especially since marijuana use appears to be on the rise among young people in Colorado.
"We don't need to legalize another substance that will harm or impair or intoxicate our young people and our adults," said Marcie Seidel, executive director of Drug-Free Action Alliance, a statewide prevention agency based in Columbus.
No longer breaking law
Brandon Harris and Tyler Williams were near the front of the line when the 3-D Denver's Discreet Dispensary opened its doors for recreational marijuana sales this month.
The first retail marijuana stores opened in Colorado on Jan. 1, and the state became the first place in the world where anyone 21 and older can purchase weed for any purpose. Retail marijuana shops are expected to open in Washington later this year.
Harris and Williams, both 24, saved up some money, packed up their belongings and hit the road, driving about 20 hours to Colorado from their hometown of Blanchester, a village that straddles Clinton and Warren counties.
Harris and Williams visited the state in April 2013 and said they fell in love with its laid-back atmosphere, friendly residents and beautiful landscape. Legalized marijuana also played a role in their decision to move.
Harris said he has smoked marijuana for years, because it helps him cope with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, depression and anxiety.
"I used to take Ritalin, but I quit taking it in high school and started smoking weed just because it worked better and had less ill side effects," he said. "Ritalin makes your mind go everywhere, and I had mood swings, so this is a more natural way to take care of it."
Harris said it is such a relief to be able to smoke marijuana without worrying about breaking the law.
Williams said he smokes marijuana recreationally, and its legalization in Colorado was just one of a variety of reasons he decided to move to the state.
"What brought me out here is freedom," he said. "I am not looked at wrong for smoking pot, and I've always wanted to move here, and the pot legalization was magical, it was icing on the cake."
Both said visitors from all over the nation have flocked to Colorado, and tourism seems to be booming because of marijuana.
"I have seen all kinds of young people from different states, and I know why they are here visiting," Harris said. "There is tourism going on, that's for sure. ... We were standing in line with a guy from Virginia and a guy from Wisconsin that flew out, so there are people just like us."
Marijuana shops in Colorado claimed they made more than $1 million in sales in the first day, and they made more than $5 million in the first week, according to the Huffington Post. Last month, the Denver Post reported that marijuana industry officials estimate that 30 percent of marijuana sales in Colorado will be to out-of-state visitors.
Some companies in Colorado are offering marijuana-themed tours, which they liken to the tours of wine country of the Napa Valley. Some local residents are already planning trips that will include cannabis consumption.
Preferred over prescription drugs
April Thomas, 72, of Dayton, said she plans to visit a friend Colorado in June, and she will undoubtedly use marijuana.
Thomas, who is retired from working as a nurse in prisons and emergency rooms, said she had a prescription for the drug when she lived in California in the 1990s.
She said she has suffered from peptic ulcer disease, skin cancer, glaucoma, hypertension and irritable bowel syndrome. She said marijuana relaxes her, relieves pressure in her eyes and has other medical benefits, and she also responded poorly to prescription medications.
"I had reactions to four different drugs, and horrendous reactions to two of them," she said.
Dennis Geeham, 61, of Dayton, said, "If I was planning a vacation, I probably would vacation in Colorado or Washington, because I can make that a part of what I do, even though it won't be the focus."
Geeham said he is a two-tour combat veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He said he has smoked marijuana intermittently, because it helps him sleep with fewer side effects than the opiates and benzodiazepines doctors have prescribed him.
Geeham said he's been prescribed drugs that are way stronger and produce more of a high than marijuana. But he said those drugs made it hard to function, and getting high is not the goal. He said he wants help blocking out the awful memories of combat, but does not want to live in a drug-induced haze.
"(The prescriptions) made me miss out on half of my life," he said.
Legalized marijuana could increase tourism to Colorado and Washington. But some officials are skeptical that it will provide a major boost.
"It's hard to believe that people will come to Denver just because they can buy marijuana legally, because (medical marijuana) is available in so many states," said Rich Grant, spokesman for Visit Denver, The Convention & Visitors Bureau. "People go on vacation for a variety of reasons, and this may be one (consideration) out of many."
Tourists also may find it difficult to use marijuana products in the state, because it cannot be consumed in hotel rooms, restaurants, streets and parks, and it is illegal to possess the products at airports, national parks and ski areas, Grant said.
"You can purchase it legally, but if you try to smoke it on the street, you have to duck in a corner and be illegal," he said.
Ohioans who smoke marijuana legally out-of-state can face discipline or termination at their jobs if they return home and test positive for banned substances.
Statewide ballot efforts
But some local legalization residents are getting restless and vow to pack up and hit the road if nothing changes in Ohio. The Ohio Rights Group, a marijuana group, is working to collect the required 385,245 valid voter signatures to get medical marijuana on the state ballot this year. They are seeking to approve the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment.
"I'm tired of waiting, and it's the Midwest, and it's going to drag its feet," Skidmore said, the Cincinnati resident. "Even if it gets legalized in 2016, that's too long."
Skidmore said she worked in health care but suffered a work-related injury. She said she had three back fractures and neck surgery, and she took opiates for years to treat her pain.
But she concluded that cannabis was better at treating her medical problems than morphine. She said cannabis stimulates her appetite, reduces her anxiety and depression and helps her sleep.
But some drug prevention and drug enforcement officials have denounced legalization activities and do not want more states to follow suit.
"There are more dispensaries in Denver than there are Starbucks," said James Capra, the Drug Enforcement Administration's chief of operations, earlier this week at a Senate hearing, according to The Washington Post. "The idea somehow people in our country have that this is somehow good for us as a nation is wrong. It's a bad thing."
Seidel, with Drug-Free Action Alliance, said legalizing marijuana would have no social or societal benefits, and it does not have medicinal benefits when smoked in the raw form.
"I think it is a very devastating idea to legalize marijuana in any form at this point," she said.
Not as dangerous
Seidel said marijuana use among young people appears to be increasing in Colorado, because the drug is more easily accessible. She said this is alarming because some users become addicted, and studies show marijuana can interfere with young people's cognitive development and lower IQ.
She also said marijuana consumption has been linked to risks including depression, psychosis, impaired memory, bad judgment and schizophrenia.
"We have arts and music and joy and outdoor recreation, we shouldn't be sitting around getting stoned," she said. "I don't see how that adds to our quality of life."
Marijuana does not create many of the problem behaviors that are associated with alcohol, cocaine, and heroin, and cannabis is effective at treating a variety of ailments, such as multiple sclerosis, while risks associated with consumption are fairly low, said Josephine Wilson, director of the Substance Abuse Resources and Disability Issues Program and professor of community health at the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University.
"I think there is lots of evidence to show that marijuana is probably not as dangerous as alcohol -- alcohol is a very bad drug, and tobacco is probably even worse," she said.
Wilson said all eyes are on the marijuana experiment in Colorado and Washington, and people will be watching to see if there is an increase in car accidents, drug abuse and other problems.
But Wilson said she expects Ohio in the not-too-distant future will legalize medicinal marijuana. If problems do not stack up, more states will likely decide to legalize marijuana for recreational use because of the tax revenues it would generate, she said.
Colorado projects about $600 million in revenue this year, including $67 million in tax revenues, of which the first $20 million is earmarked for schools, according to state figures and Reuters.
"The think the economics will win out," she said.
By Cornelius Frolik - Dayton Daily News, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)
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