FORT WAYNE – Ben Schoch doesn't use marijuana, a fact that makes him the ideal poster boy for a local group lobbying to legalize the drug.
The 25-year-old founded northeast Indiana's NORML chapter during the two months he spent recovering from spinal surgery in February to remove a tumor on his first vertebra.
Even today, Schoch has all-over tenderness and numbness, pain he believes could be eased by ingesting marijuana.
“There are a lot of people out there who have medical conditions that could be helped by this, and they're afraid of saying anything,” he said, adding that he fears for his own retail job.
Schoch was one of 15 people who met Saturday afternoon at the Allen County Public Library to discuss how the fledgling group might attract members and exert influence.
NORML, by the way, stands for the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.
The group will be soliciting new members in two weeks at the Fort Wayne Pride Festival and at various upcoming county fairs and other public events.
The small core membership believes many like-minded people don't know the organization exists.
As executive director, Schoch advised newcomers that members are required to leave their personal lives at home by not speaking about personal experience with the drug. He also urged them not to do anything that might hurt themselves or the reputation of the group.
Schoch, who has closely cropped hair, did his part Saturday by dressing in a pink button-down shirt, slacks and dress shoes. Only his small, green lapel pin hinted at his pro-pot stance. Others in attendance wore T-shirts, tank tops, shorts and sandals or sneakers.
Meetings are the first Saturday of every month at 1 p.m., and annual dues are $25 for adults and $15 for college students with I.D.
Although Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational marijuana, Indiana statute says pot possession, cultivation and distribution are illegal. Hoosiers, as a group, are widely considered to hold conservative views on hot-button issues, a fact that group members acknowledged.
“This is something so controversial that five people can't do it all,” Schoch said, referring to the group's officers. “That's not possible.”
His goal, shared by others, is for Indiana to make recreational marijuana use legal.
“That's not going to happen right away,” Schoch cautioned.
The advocacy group plans to take one step at a time, beginning with lobbying to legalize hemp farming in Indiana.
James Vance, the group's deputy director, is a full-time student at Oregon State University. His online horticulture studies included a class in industrial hemp production.
The plant's fibers can be made into clothing, paper, fuels and plastics. Advocates believe the U.S. could spur its economy and reduce foreign imports if it allowed farmers to grow hemp.
Vance, like Schoch, said he tried marijuana long ago.
“We were all kids once. I grew up in the '70s. I even followed the Grateful Dead for a while,” he said, flashing a tattoo on his left bicep.
But both men said they'd smoke it now if it were legal.
Pot wasn't always banned. Gaylen Twigg, 66, recalled the shock he felt when he learned that his grandmother had indulged in marijuana during Prohibition.
Twigg, who has written a letter to the editor sharing his views, said he wasn't comfortable publicly supporting legalized marijuana until after he retired from the auction industry. The Indiana native has never considered moving to a state where recreational drug use is legal because this is his home.
There is a darker side to the issue.
Last week, Nikolas A. Williams, 22, of the 3300 block of New Haven Avenue, was accused by local prosecutors of having marijuana in his system when he fell asleep at the wheel, causing an accident that killed his passenger in August 2013.
NORML's national principles don't support such alleged use, however. The group's platform calls for responsible use only by adults and never before or while driving.
Schoch said his group has an uphill battle to convince people that they aren't just a bunch of potheads who want to make it legal to get high.
He stressed that people don't need to have personal experience – past or present – with marijuana to join the local group.
“The way I describe it,” he said, “is, I'm not lesbian or gay – but I still support gay rights.”