Keisha Campbell thought her prayers had been answered.
When the Black, 39-year-old mother of seven achieved sobriety on Dec. 28, 2018, she set out to find treatment for her PTSD, anxiety and depression that did not involve addictive drugs or alcohol. When medical marijuana became available in Ohio four days later, she thought it might be a solution. Her psychiatrist had her on Vivitrol to help with her sobriety, but Campbell was concerned about possible liver damage. By the end of 2019, she had no appetite, had lost weight and was suffering worsening panic attacks, so her doctor referred her to Ohio Cannabis Connection to get a medical marijuana card.
“The experience was amazing,” Campbell said. “I have disabling panic attacks, where my body locks up. But with marijuana, I don’t have them.”
It was a lifesaver for Campbell. But she quickly learned that the federal, state and county enforcement of marijuana laws varies greatly, leaving bias against Black, Brown and low-income people unchecked. Medical marijuana is a new front in the war on drugs that has historically devastated Black communities since the Nixon era.
In August 2021, while driving north from Columbus on I-71 to a birthday party in Mansfield, Campbell was pulled over in Morrow County by Ohio Highway Patrol for “swerving all over the road” – something she has no recollection of doing. She had taken a locked registered gun with her for protection on the trip, storing it in the glove compartment with the clip. The officer said the two pieces were not stored far enough apart. She was hit with a felony gun charge. To reduce the charge to a misdemeanor, she had to surrender her $900 gun.
Campbell passed the field sobriety tests, so they called another officer to the scene who did an eye-tracking test. She was arrested for DUI because her eyes were shaking after three minutes with a flashlight shining in them. The officers tore apart the entire car and found no drugs or paraphernalia. She told them she had her medical marijuana card and had smoked 90 minutes before she left. They did not test her for drugs or alcohol that evening. The DUI charge was later dropped.
But when Campbell returned for a hearing on the charges, Judge Robert C. Hickson, Jr. had her submit a urine sample that day. Again, she told him that she has a medical marijuana card and it is important for her mental health. According to Campbell, Hickson replied that the court doesn’t recognize medical marijuana cards. (The Morrow County Common Pleas Court did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)
As Hickson threatened Campbell with incarceration pending her trial if she tested positive for marijuana, Campbell weighed her options.
“Her case is not unusual at all,” said Joseph Mas, a Columbus criminal defense attorney who often represents clients on traffic and drug charges. He explained that even with alcohol, which is legal for adults over age 21, judges will make abstinence a condition of a defendant's bond to remain out of jail prior to trial.
Campbell fought Hickson's ruling at first, but eventually stopped using the medication.
“I can’t afford to go to jail. Not with my kids. It’s hard enough to get myself up to Morrow County for all these drug tests,” she said.
During the first five months she was off of the medication, she lost 20 pounds. Her mental stability declined, and her depression was kicking in. She called off work so many times that she lost her job as a chef at a nursing home that previously allowed her to go out to her car to smoke marijuana on breaks.
“It felt like the deep darkness that loomed over me when I was drinking,” Campbell said. “I felt like a failure.”
Ohio Medical Alliance, LLC, is one of the companies issuing medical marijuana cards in Ohio. President Cassandra Brooks is very aware that people across the state experience differing levels of discrimination because they have a card.
“I spend a great deal of my time educating employers, case workers, judges, probation officers, and others,” Brooks said. “The courts are ill-informed. They don’t know what they don’t know.”
Brooks said the folks she talks with often think people are only getting cards to skirt the law. She helps everyone understand why patients with many diagnoses can live healthier lives while on marijuana.
Campbell knows some people think marijuana is only for getting high. “I use marijuana to have a functional life,” she said. “Being high is not functional.”
Brooks said that when the cards were first available, those who long ago included marijuana in their recreational lifestyle gravitated to medical cards as a way to reduce their legal risks. She sees the block on concealed carry licenses and gun purchases as the main deterrent for people getting the cards currently.
With many jurisdictions ignoring possession of small amounts of marijuana, the risk of legal trouble is now minimal for many people. But not for others like Campbell.
Ohio is closer than it has ever been to see recreational marijuana legalized statewide. A small step toward this goal is SB26, introduced in January by Sen. Nathan Manning, a Republican from Lorain County. This bill acknowledges that marijuana can be detected in urine up to 30 days after usage. If passed, a person could offer an affirmative defense to a DUI charge by admitting usage prior to the time that it would have caused impairment while driving.
A statewide initiative that missed the ballot last year due to a technicality is all but guaranteed to be on the ballot in November 2023 if the group’s sponsor, Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, moves forward with it. The constitutional amendment includes a provision to direct taxes collected on marijuana sales to fund reparations for populations harmed by the enforcement of drug use laws.
Mas predicts, however, that judges will still include restrictions on marijuana usage for bonds and probation even after legalization.
In the meantime, Campbell hopes to be the catalyst to change the courts in Morrow County. A probation officer told her she would be the first person in the county to use marijuana while on probation. No one has ever fought as hard as she has.
In late January, she filed a complaint against Judge Hickson with the Ohio Supreme Court Disciplinary Board for what she termed his unethical, unfair treatment of people with medical marijuana cards.
Hickson will likely see that complaint before he sentences Campbell on Feb. 17 for the gun charge.