Tony Coder of the Drug Free Action Alliance (center) almost hit Mary Jane Borden of the Ohio Rights Group (right) during a heated televised debate last week

It is said that politics is a full contact sport and that Ohio is a battleground state. With Ohio politicians seemingly incapable of legitimizing medicinal cannabis while their power to do so is being usurped by “we the people,” it seems logical that this topic would ignite a heated debate. Such was the case at the ABC 6 Town Hall Meeting on Medicinal Marijuana held at the Columbus Museum of Art in the evening of Wednesday, February 19th. Perverbial fists and fingers flew.

Sparring partners included those representing the prohibitionist status quo who sat on the left side of a long table – Dr. Steve Matson, President of the Ohio Society of Addiction Medicine, and Marcie Seidel, the Executive Director of the Drug Free Action Alliance. And on right side, the voices for reason and reform belonged to Michael Revercomb, Vice President of Ohio NORML and John Pardee, President of the Ohio Rights Group. The ORG sponsors the Ohio Cannabis Rights Amendment, one subject of the debate.

With audience seating also marked by side, Tony Coder, billed as the DFAA’s Assistant Director, sat in the prohibition section of the front row, a mere two seats away from Mary Jane Borden in the reform zone. Borden is Vice President of the Ohio Rights Group and co-author of the OCRA. With the stage set, the show began.

Called “Your Voice. Your Future,” the Town Hall series airs every other week in various media markets from Albany, New York to Austin, Texas. The forum aligns audience members behind a microphone to pose their questions to a cadre of panelists. Small hand held clickers are dispensed to enable real time tabulation of audience responses to various questions. Social media enthusiasts follow all of this online.

The program’s purposefully loose format foiled any hope of a smooth, seamless stream. Reformers booed the flurry of false facts emitted by the prohibitionists, with cheering from both sides following comments with which each agreed. The left end of the table even made the left-handed move of inserting “plants” into the discussion ahead of audience members who had been standing ten deep in line to ask questions. The interlopers ignited the fireworks.

“My data says you’re wrong!” proclaimed Seidel in response to cold hard facts laid out by Revercomb, whose statements were repeatedly cut short. Really, Marcie? Let’s do some fact checking.

False. “A 30-year New Zealand study shows that young people who start using marijuana at an early age will lose 8 IQ points,” by Seidel and Matson. After reanalyzing data from a highly-publicized 2012 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Norwegian researchers one year later in the same journal refuted the original findings and attributed the aforementioned IQ drop to socioeconomic factors such as income, education and occupation. If “Real research gets reviewed by peers that look at it and decide if it is real or not,” is your claim about IQ now unreal, Dr. Matson?

False. “Rates of traffic fatalities involving marijuana have gone up in Colorado, even though overall traffic fatalities have gone down,” by Seidel. This statement supposedly sprang from research in the American Journal of Epidemiology, which like the New Zealand study contained significant flaws. The research concerned traffic fatalities in six medical marijuana states, but included only three such states in the analysis.

False. “I’ve never seen a paper looking at marijuana treating addiction,” by Matson. Try these: Journal of the American Statistical Association (1993), Australian National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2001), Economics Letters (2005), The Journal of Neuroscience (2009), CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics (2009), Harm Reduction Journal (2009), Addiction Research & Theory (2013), Alcohol and Alcoholism (2014) … and so on.

False. “No one is going to jail for even possession of marijuana,” by Seidel. Then explain what happens to the 13,889 Ohioans who, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, were arrested for just that in 2011. Granted, the Ohio Revised Code makes possession of 100g or less a non-reportable minor misdemeanor with no jail time. However, with incarceration included in the ORC’s six other levels of possession, every single one of those arrested was subject to confinement in either state prisons or local jails.

Surely some in the audience had felt that pain, for a roar erupted in protest. To quell the rowdy crowd, moderator Bob Kendrick turned the discussion to the proposed amendment. Seemingly unable to cover it by herself, Seidel sidled her Associate Director to the microphone, coining him “more of an expert on it” as “that was part of the understanding … we could have [him] speak.” If some “understanding” permitted participation by those not on the panel, it must have been a secret known only to ABC 6 and the DFAA. Unwilling to allow this unfairness to go unanswered, Mary Jane Borden sprang from her nearby seat and followed Coder to the mic.

Caught in the moment, Coder embarked on a rant declaring the OCRA to be “deplorable!” More protests erupted. Coder’s voice increased in intensity … “Sir, please, please …” as he swung his left arm with finger pointed a full 180 degrees - from the heckler to a disabled veteran in a wheel chair. In the path was Borden’s face that he missed more than once by mere millimeters. To alert him, Borden quietly queried, “excuse me?” to which Coder responded tersely, “Well, get out of my way!”

Taken aback, moderator Yolanda Harris replied, “Let’s be kind! Let’s be kind!” The roar of the crowd intensified. Coder continued. The amendment is not about suffering, he scolded the vet with outstretched finger, rather a 35 year old chronic drug abuser. After Coder returned to his seat, Borden stepped up to the microphone and calmly explained the provisions of the amendment that he had questioned.

Perhaps beaten by the contentiousness, both Matson and Seidel seemed to temper their viewpoints toward the end of the Town Hall. “I’m not saying I don’t want you to have it [marijuana] if it made you feel good,” admitted Matson to an obviously sick woman, “I just don’t want you to call it medicine.” With equal encouragement, Seidel concluded, “Whatever one needs to do for your medical conditions to make the quality of your life the best you can be. Do it. I am all for you.”

The Town Hall has since received wide media coverage. For two nights in a row, ABC 6 News played a segment under the moniker, “Tempers flared over the emotional issue of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes in the state of Ohio.” A You Tube channel carries the eight individual parts of the full video, each of which has received only a limited number of views.

No apology has been forthcoming either at the debate or following a formal request for one made to both Coder and the DFAA later that evening. In the final analysis, the side promoting reason and reform – our side – was the winner. We won with facts. We won with truth. We won with enthusiastic and devoted supporters. We won with nationwide media coverage. We won in the court of public opinion. We won in the stream of social media. We won by taking the high road and refusing to deal low blows or play unfairly. And we won, even at the hand of our opposition.