Medical Marijuana Buzzes Ahead

It’s flown a bit under the radar, but the medical marijuana business in Ohio is moving ahead, slowly but surely.  The Ohio State Medical Board has been meeting to determine which conditions can properly be the subject of a medical marijuana recommendation.  People have been registering to participate in the program.  Medical marijuana dispensaries are open and operating, and the Ohio Board of Pharmacy has been issuing licenses to dispensary employees.  And new jobs have been created, too.

2133Let’s start with the jobs.  One website looked at reports from the Ohio Department of Commerce and other state regulators and determined that, in the year since medical marijuana dispensaries first opened, 4,275 new jobs have been created.  That number includes 951 state-licensed dispensary employees, as well as 1,686 people working for cultivators, testing labs, and processors.

There are now 49 regulated medical marijuana dispensaries found at different locations across the state, including a number in Columbus.  (If you are over 21, you can see the list here.).  More than 70,000 Ohioans are registered with the state’s medical marijuana program, and the average person who uses the products is more than 55 years old.  Many apparently use the products to deal with chronic pain.  Reports indicate that nearly 56,000 Ohioans have bought more than $50 million in medical marijuana products at the dispensaries, and prices have come down as more dispensaries open and more product becomes available.

In the meantime, the State Medical Board has been meeting to consider the conditions that may appropriately qualify for a medical marijuana recommendation from a doctor.  Only this week, the Medical Board denied a request by long-suffering fans of the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals to qualify their fanship as a disease that can be treated with marijuana to ease the pain of constant losses, but also voted to move anxiety and autism forward as potentially qualifying conditions.

Ohio tends to be a cautious place, and it took a cautious approach to medical marijuana.  So far, at least, the cautious approach seems to be working.

Ohio’s New Medical Marijuana Law

Yesterday, Governor John Kasich signed a new law that requires that medical marijuana be available in Ohio within two years.  With the stroke of his pen, Ohio joins the growing number of states that allow marijuana products to be used for specified health conditions.

The Ohio law is being depicted as more restrictive than some medical marijuana laws, primarily because it does not permit the smoking of marijuana, only the use of certain edible products, patches, oils, and vapes.  In addition, physicians can properly prescribe marijuana only for a list of 20 specified and serious medical conditions, like Crohn’s disease and epilepsy.  The only condition that might have a little wiggle room allows use of marijuana products for pain that is either chronic or severe and intractable.

medcannabisOne apparent goal of Ohio legislators was to avoid the more open-ended approach of states like California, where the prevailing perception is that cooperative doctors freely diagnose new patients as having conditions that allow them to go to nearby shops, buy weed, and toke up.  Ohio tried to deal with concerns that the more lax approaches are de facto legalizing marijuana for recreational use by continuing to ban smoking and by calling for significant regulations to be issued by multiple administrative bodies.

To that end, the law establishes a commission that will advise state agencies on medical marijuana issues, and the Department of Commerce, the Ohio Pharmacy Board, and the Ohio Medical Board all will issue rules and regulations in the coming months.  The rules to come will address the entire medical marijuana process, from selection and licensing of growers, to development and sale of products, to oversight of actual prescription and use of the permitted products.

The law also leaves employers free to continue to set their own rules about marijuana use by employees.  If workplace policies ban consumption of marijuana by employees, an employee who has a prescription to use marijuana products can nevertheless be fired by the employer for violating the workplace policy.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the new law reflects the “Ohio approach” that is so familiar to those of us who live here — cautious, incremental, middle of the road, and the product of multiple compromises between competing viewpoints.  It won’t place Ohio on the cutting edge of marijuana laws and regulations, but it does let the Buckeye State put its toe in the water.


Looking To Legalize In The Buckeye State

Should marijuana — growing, selling, and consuming — be legalized in Ohio?  A number of different groups and legalization advocates are pushing to put the issue before voters in the Buckeye State, perhaps as early as this fall.

In fact, there are several apparently well-funded efforts pursuing different proposals that vary in material ways — a sign, perhaps, that legalized marijuana is now a big business, but also a source of confusion.  One proposal wants to permit cultivation and use of medical marijuana, as 23 states have done; others want to move directly to making Ohio the fifth state, after Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, to fully legalize cannabis.  There are other differences as well, on issues such who can grow the crop and where, how much people can possess, and whether revenues from taxes on marijuana would be dedicated to fund pension plans, fix roads and bridges, or used for other purposes.

The bigger question, of course, is whether Ohioans are ready to move toward legalization.  Ohio has never been the leader in new initiatives that move sharply in any direction on the political or social spectrum; it didn’t legalize casino gambling until it was surrounded by states that had done so — and even then only in the throes of the Great Recession when casino gambling promised to deliver desperately needed jobs.  The Buckeye State has long been a place of moderation, where political disagreements don’t get nasty and common sense prevails, which is why Ohio is always a crucial swing state when presidential elections roll around.

I doubt that Ohio voters are ready to legalize marijuana right now.  I expect opponents to make the argument that the Buckeye State should take a wait-and-see approach.  Let the states that have gone the full-scale legalization route be the laboratories of democracy, and let Ohio sit back until the evidence is clearer on what it all means in terms of overall use, drug addiction, crime, job creation, tax revenues, pot tourism, and the other areas that might be affected by legalization.  What’s the rush?  With the bump in employment and tax revenues delivered by the Utica Shale development efforts in eastern Ohio, opponents might argue, it’s not like Ohio needs to be out front on the issue.

On the other hand, Ohio’s status as a bellwether state presumably makes it a tantalizing prospect for legalization advocates.  If moderate, level-headed Ohioans can be convinced to amend their state constitution to legalize marijuana, that would certainly tell you something about the overall national mood on the issue.