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Election 2022 Health Care Justice

Online, word of mouth grass-roots effort emerges to oppose legalizing cannabis

Heidi Rochon, left, and Will Jones. Photos courtesy of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Heidi Rochon says she continues to experience the negative effects medical cannabis has brought to a few of her family members, who never used the drug until it became legal in Maryland.

Although various polls show a majority of voters support a ballot measure to legalize recreational use of cannabis, the Caroline County resident on the Eastern Shore is part of a grass-roots movement that says no.

One of Rochon’s family members received approval last year for a medical cannabis card after being diagnosed with attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Her family member, who is also slightly autistic, has had nine car crashes.

“I really don’t worry he’s not going to kill himself. I really worry he’s going to kill somebody else,” Rochon said in an interview Monday. “This is not just about pot. This is having a negative effect on people.”

Rochon serves as executive director for the Parent Action Network. Part of her works is a grass-roots effort through Protect Maryland Kids, which informs voters through word of mouth and its website about why it opposes Question 4, the statewide ballot question on whether to legalize adult cannabis recreational use.

Many Black activists, entrepreneurs and political leaders are doing the opposite, encouraging voters to make cannabis legal in the state. Their efforts are being supported in part by large cannabis companies, and the campaigns are being guided by top-tier political hired guns.

If the ballot initiative is approved in the Nov. 8 general election, a companion bill would go into effect to allow criminal records expunged for persons convicted for single possession of cannabis. The state would conduct public health campaigns and establish a fund to help small, minority-owned and women-owned businesses entering the cannabis industry.

As Rochon reads the legislation, she said it does require studies and research to ensure the cannabis legalization roll-out would be effective.

But “we have examples [in other states], and it is not working,” she said. “The data is already out there.”

The grass-roots effort does have support from the national Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), based in Alexandria, Va. The organization, comprised of various groups and individuals, conducts research on marijuana-related policies and advocates for national and state programs with a “health-first approach.”

Will Jones, director of community engagement and outreach for SAM, said the cannabis industry doesn’t reflect equity. He referenced various states with a handful of Black-owned cannabis companies such as California, Colorado and Illinois.

There remain a handful of Black-owned dispensaries in Maryland. As of Saturday, the state’s Medical Cannabis Commission recorded the highest number of patients this year at almost 159,860.

In January, the New Jersey African American Chamber of Commerce noted that none of the 56 cannabis licenses awarded in that state went to Black businesses. Medical cannabis in the Garden State was approved in 2012 and recreational use was approved last year.

“When [legislation’s] rolled out, none of the laws are being upheld,” said Jones, who resides in Washington, D.C., and works as a firefighter. “There should be equity for people of color. Cannabis is not the best industry, period.”

Both Rochon and Jones said Maryland’s legislation doesn’t have a key element: a potency cap in the amount of THC used in a cannabis product. THC is a chemical compound that can impact a person’s mental state.

Jones mentioned a proposal reviewed in Vermont that sought to reduce the amount of THC potency to 15%, but lawmakers there approved a 60% cap this year.

The amount varies from state to state, and Rochon said another relative in Maryland received medical cannabis for back pain with more than 80% THC.

“My family member never smoked pot. Within six months, used it every single day,” said Rochon, who worked for more than two decades to provide support for families with children who experienced mental health problems. “This is creating an addiction…and we haven’t even opened the market here in Maryland.”