Marijuana plant

If you’re an Ohio medical marijuana aficionado, you know about HB 523. After 20 years of intransigence, the Ohio General Assembly has passed its first pro-cannabis bill.

Lawmakers fast tracked HB 523 after the humiliating November 2015 defeat of the Responsible Ohio ballot issue and to preempt its successor, Ohioans for Medical Marijuana sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project. The bill evolved from a series of town hall meetings and task force hearings to introduction as House Bill number 523 in April 2016. Testimony was heard before committees of both the Ohio House and Ohio Senate, with House passage in early May and Senate passage two weeks later. Ohio Governor John Kasich penned his name on June 8, 2016. TheMarijuana-authorize use for medical purposes-controls” Act goes into effect on September 8, 2016.

This Act has its good and bad, as well as its devilish unknowns:

The Good

Patient Rights. Patient rights are paramount, and delightfully, HB 523 contains quite a few. These include protections against criminal prosecution, asset forfeiture, relinquishment of child custody, revocation of professional licenses and denial of organ transplants. The Act also contains an Affirmative Defense to criminal charges.  

Department of Commerce. HB 523 defers regulation to five state agencies, including this department. It will oversee cannabis cultivation, processing and laboratory testing. This wise move may anticipate expansion of the agency when (not if) marijuana becomes fully legal.   

Home grow. Surprised? Don’t be. HB 523 does not outlaw home growing. That’s right. There is no command, “Thou shall not home grow.” Instead, HB 523 reads, “A cultivator license holder shall not cultivate medical marijuana for personal, family or household use …” (Sec. 3796.18) Technically, only those with cultivator licenses are barred from home growing. What legislators did was defer to existing Ohio law banning marijuana cultivation. A simple fix could read, “registered patients may each cultivate not more than 12 plants for personal use without a cultivator’s license.” Problem solved.

The Bad

Employment. Lawmakers wouldn’t budge on this one. Several companies testified that medical marijuana would tank their drug free workplaces. The rebuttal, what about legal – and deadly – opiates? Still, the business community (and drug testing companies) supposedly won the day with “closed door” agreements that left employment law intact. Sadly, the sick can be fired for cause – using a legal medication that isn’t manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry.
  OARRS. Did you know that Big Brother is watching you … through the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System? Every prescription filled at a pharmacy, even for a dog, dings this system. “The Man” knows what you take, when and for how long. If your aficionado hackles aren’t up, they should be. This database’s detailed tracking, originally designed to detect doctor shopping during last decade’s opiate crisis, has been extended to medical marijuana. Toward what end other than feeding Big Brother?  

Medical conditions. Like most medical marijuana bills, HB 523 differentiates classes of people based on a limited list of debilitating medical conditions. Club members can use and purchase a controlled substance that might otherwise incarcerate their neighbor. Removing the sick from the battlefield of the drug war is vital. However, if cannabis can treat over 100 medical conditions as alleged, HB 523’s list of 21 leaves 80 percent of the ill still out there.

Patient paperwork. Physicians process volumes of paperwork. HB 523 adds more. Doctors must apply to the state medical board for a certificate to recommend medical marijuana. Once they do so, they must submit recommendation paperwork to the state board of pharmacy on behalf of each patient they treat and each caregiver. After all of this, the recommendation remains valid for only three months (90-days). The process begins again and again with renewals, thereby increasing physician workload and resistance to the program.  

The Unknown

Cultivation rules. We know that licensed cultivators will be permitted to grow medical marijuana and that the resulting crop can be tested and processed into oils, tinctures, plant material, edibles and patches. What we don’t know are those devilish details like who grows, how much, where, for how long and how much. Will there be only 10 sites run by 10 rich investors? Or will regulators permit smaller, boutique grows to serve selected dispensaries with individualized strains?

90-supply. Possession limits in HB 523 are quite liberal: 90-day supply as determined by the state board of pharmacy. More devilish details. A three-month (90-day) supply to some is two weeks to another. Would this amount be based on condition, cannabis strain or otherwise individualized? Does the board – not of the doctor – determine dose frequency? And will the board be conservative or liberal with its determinations? All of this plays into what comprises that “90-day supply.”

Minority ownership. Kudos to legislators for accommodating those who have been most affected by the drug war – people of color – by helping them join the new cannabis economy. HB 523 allocates at least 15 percent of licenses to economically disadvantaged groups. However, some have questioned the legality of these minority set-asides. This unknown may represent the bill’s first court battle.

Overall, HB 523 gets a passing grade of “C.” It does the job: legalizes the medical use of marijuana for a defined class of ill Ohioans. It grants them civil and criminal protections and promises them a safe, tested supply. Although the bill contains a number of onerous elements, it does have the potential to lay the foundation for an Ohio cannabis industry.

Finally, many thanks should be extended to the Ohio Rights Group and other advocates for the teamwork and constant pressure all exerted on the General Assembly to pass HB 523. We helped legislators understand the power of the plant and its aficionados. We were profound, informative, poised and pointed, and our pro-cannabis arguments resonated. We put an end to 20 years of legislative intransigence and legalized medical marijuana in Ohio. It’s a new day. Dare we say, Mission Accomplished.

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