The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
Ohio senators are trying once more to overhaul the state’s medical marijuana system. That effort stalled out last session after passing the Senate. Meanwhile, the bid to place adult, recreational use on the ballot has only gained steam in the interim.
Tuesday, the Ohio Senate’s general government committee heard proponent testimony.
A dying program
Speakers raised numerous concerns about Ohio’s existing medical marijuana program. Yousef Zafer brought broad scope of experience. He’s a marijuana patient himself, studying to be a pediatric neurosurgeon at Ohio State University. Zafer has also worked as a cannabis lab manager.
He told the committee the current system lacks competition and doesn’t include enough qualifying conditions. He argued the proposed overhaul makes strides on both issues.
“I know a lot of patients who venture up to Michigan to purchase their medical products because they’re cheaper and they’re usually higher quality, which is illegal,” Zafer said. “We need to keep Ohio patients in Ohio by offering those high quality products at a competitive price.”
Ted Bibart painted a stark picture of the current state of Ohio’s system.
“This program is dying. The numbers tell us this,” he said. “From last month’s numbers to this month’s numbers, we’ve lost 3% of the patient population. Over 4,000 patients have no longer participated in this program than did the month prior.”
He warned that with the medical program in decline, recreational marijuana — which he insisted is coming — could “totally eviscerate” the medical system. He argued that without a medical framework demanding quality and therapeutics the market would shift to the lowest common denominator. Ohioans might have access but their options would suffer, he said.
Other backers sparred over the measure’s testing regime, or criticized sponsors for leaving out language ensuring medical marijuana participation being considered in custody hearings.
The core of Sens. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, and Kirk Schuring’s, R-Canton, bill reiterate the measure Huffman guided through the Senate last year.
Once again, the proposal establishes a Division of Marijuana Control, or DMC, in the Commerce Department charged with program oversight. The Board of Pharmacy would continue running the drug database, but it would hand off dispensary licensing and patient registration to the new division.
Like the previous proposal, the measure splits cultivator licensing into two tiers, expands the range of eligible conditions, and sets a target of one dispensary per 1,000 patients.
But Huffman and Schuring have made a number of additions to the bill this time around, too. Concerned with who oversees the overseers, their proposal establishes a 13-member commission to help stand up the new DMC. Members would include representatives from medicine, law enforcement, and labor, among others.
Schuring noted they picked up that idea from Maryland’s system. An recent report from the independent patient advocacy organization Americans for Safe Access ranked Maryland first among state programs. Ohio’s ranked eighth.
They direct the new division to hand out new dispensary licenses within 90 days and order them to make selections based on merit rather than a lottery.
“We feel that the supply chain is broken,” Schuring said in testimony introducing the bill last month.
“We feel that it needs fixed,” he went on. “At the end of the day, those who need medic medical marijuana, have to pay an inordinate price to get their medication to the point where it’s not competitive in the marketplace.”
Speaking after Tuesday’s hearing, Schuring readily agreed with the assessment that Ohio’s medical marijuana program is dying. “I think the evidence shows that,” he said.
But while speakers and some committee members seem to agree recreational use is coming, Schuring dismissed the idea of lawmakers taking the initiative and crafting their own version.
Taking a dig at the ballot initiative backed by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, he argued it provides little regulation if any.
“That’s what this program is designed to do,” Schuring said, tapping the papers arrayed in front of him. “And when you say you can grow it at home, that’s not regulated.”
“As I said before,” he added, “last time I checked, you can’t put a still in your backyard.”
A separate proposal recently introduced in the Ohio Senate does seek to allow Ohioans to make and consume moonshine.
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