Neon sign glowing in window orange letters saying Medical and Green image of a marijuana leaf

To understand the status of marijuana in Ohio, one must start at the beginning. No, not in prehistoric times as one of humanity’s oldest crops, nor in 1851 when medicinal efficacy was first documented in the “Report of the Ohio State Medical Committee on Cannabis Indica.” Skip past the Uniform Controlled Substances Act of 1969 that Ohio used to classify the plant as so vile as to cause the arrest of 20,000 residents each year. Move beyond legislation that Republican Governor “Big Jim” Rhodes signed in 1975 making Ohio the sixth state to decriminalize small quantities.

Arrive at the March 12, 1997 session of the Ohio House of Representatives. As the second act of the legislative calendar that year, Ohio lawmakers spouted “reefer madness” by the tonnage to repeal a simple “medical purposes affirmative defense” that sick patients could assert in court to defend their medicinal use.

During the 20 years since that seminal date, seven medical marijuana bills were introduced in the Ohio legislature, only to languish. The Ohio Attorney General reviewed 23 proposed citizen-led ballot initiatives. All failed to no avail … until 2016 … the year of House Bill 523 (HB 523). Fearing legalization by the people, both chambers of the Republican dominated legislature passed the bill in just four short weeks; Republican Governor John Kasich signed it fourteen days later.

This long journey serves as the backdrop for the current state of medical marijuana in Ohio.

The regulatory scheme imposed by HB 523 divides authority among three Ohio agencies: the Department of Commerce that oversees cultivation, processing and testing; the Board of Pharmacy that regulates dispensaries; and the State Medical Board that certifies physicians to recommend cannabis to patients who have been diagnosed with one of 21 qualifying conditions.

This coming November, despite U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ dire drug war warnings, the Department of Commerce will license twelve “Level 1” and twelve “Level 2” growers to each cultivate respective maximums of 25,000 and 3,000 square feet, totaling 336,000 square feet of greenery statewide.

Vying for these valuable licenses are 109 prospective Level 1 growers, each paying non-refundable application fees of $20,000, while their 76 prospective Level 2 counterparts forked over fees of $2,000 each. By the June 30 application deadline, a grand total of $2.3 million flowed into state coffers.

In the coming years, 24 fully functioning cultivators will generate at least of $2.6 million annually from renewal fees alone, remembering that more licensees can be added once Ohio’s program becomes fully operational on September 8, 2018. My, how times have changed.

But that’s not all. Once the state issues 40 processing licenses and 60 dispensary licenses (unlikely until 2018), revenue in application and operating fees alone – all non-refundable – will eclipse $8 million. The annual operating budget for a program that state officials once panned as reefer madness will surpass $11 million.  And Sessions wants to kneecap this nascent industry in rustbelt Ohio, why?

As for the patients, once an individual with a qualifying condition obtains a written recommendation from a physician with whom he/she has boni fide relationship, the doctor will submit a form to the board of pharmacy that will in turn issue a registration card to the patient for a $50 fee. Caregivers follow a similar process and hold a $25 card for each patient they serve.

Patients must purchase from dispensaries and can only consume oils, tinctures, plant material, edibles, and patches. No smoking allowed, nor personal growing. The THC in plant material must be less than 35 percent; for extracts, less than 70 percent. The maximum 90-day supply for the weakest of weed is eight ounces. Other forms have ratios relevant to their makeup.

Word of caution, though. The board of pharmacy warns that it is the only legal, state-authorized distributor of patient ID cards, which as of this writing have yet to be issued. Patients, who obtain other cards or cross state lines to purchase elsewhere, beware. This also applies to HB 523’s affirmative defense, which expires when the board begins to accept patient applications.

Is HB 523 perfect? No. Qualifying conditions should be expanded to include anxiety, addiction, arthritis and rare disorders. In honor of a prior time, the Affirmative Defense should be extended indefinitely to accommodate the sick who make unregistered medicinal use. Testing laboratories, other than those at universities, should be allowed to apply for licenses as soon cultivators receive theirs. Non-commercial, small quantity personal grows in one’s “castle,” aka home should be permitted.

On a final note, the Office of Governor Kasich proudly reports that the state has met its deadlines and is establishing its medical marijuana program along the timeline defined in HB 523. Undoubtedly, Ohio is better off as a “legal” state than as one inspired by Jeff Sessions’ drug war and the reefer madness of 20 years ago.

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