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For Ohio’s medical marijuana program, government is the problem

By Meg Ellis
Sep 06, 2018

Nearly two years ago this week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed House Bill 523, legalizing medical marijuana in the Buckeye State. In spite of this historic legislation, Ohio patients are still no closer to receiving state-regulated medicinal cannabis products.

While Ohio’s medical marijuana program was supposed to be up and running by September 8, state officials are anticipating that the program won’t be fully operational until November of this year, at the earliest.

Ohio lawmakers set the September deadline back in 2016, giving multiple state agencies the time to collaborate, coordinate, and implement a medical marijuana program. So what happened? Were two years too tight of a deadline? Did Ohio legislators forget to do their homework? Was there no policy-parachute for a new canopy in Ohio?

[Read More: Medical marijuana now an opioid alternative in Illinois thanks to new bill signed by governor]

Marcie Seidel, a member of the Ohio Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee, felt that two years wasn’t enough time. “I thought it was really aggressive and thought that it probably couldn’t happen,” Seidel said.

When asked about the September 8 deadline, Mark Hamlin from the  Ohio Department of Commerce stated that he would rather have a safe program than a quick one.

"The places where (businesses) have seen people get in trouble is when they rush to hit some specific deadline," Hamlin said. "We're always going to be focused first and foremost on patient safety and access."

Unfortunately, as with any burgeoning industry, there are hurdles and stopgaps which may prevent the timely delivery of promised goods. Medicinal marijuana products in Ohio are no different.

Medicinal marijuana is legal in 30 states and Washington, D.C. According to an analysis by the Marijuana Policy Project, the implementation timeline for medical marijuana programs varied by state, with the shortest being five months and the longest, four years.

Ohio’s neighbor, Pennsylvania, legalized medicinal marijuana in April 2017 and began issuing the first round of medicinal marijuana permits two months later.  So why the delay?

A bogged down bureaucratic process, difficulties obtaining licensing, and the actual planting of cannabis in Ohio all play a role in delaying the release of medicinal marijuana.

Red tape continues to delay cannabis sales

One of the great difficulties in establishing a regulated marijuana program, medicinal or otherwise, is that there are no federal guidelines which states can utilize to model their own programs after.

The federal government regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act, which does not differentiate between the medical and recreational use of cannabis. This lack of clarification from the federal government means that each state must develop their own pot-programs, with their own guidelines, financial infrastructures, regulations, and enforcement policies. Developing these policies and procedures takes time.

[Read More: Cannabis taxes continue to burden California’s pot businesses]

House Bill 523 legalized medicinal marijuana in Ohio in 2016 and laid the framework for the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program. This Control Program will allow people with certain medical conditions and a recommendation from an Ohio-licensed physician certified by the State Medical Board to purchase and use medical cannabis products.

The state legislation set up a basic structure for the Control Program, but left the task of writing rules and regulations for the cultivation, processing, and dispensing off marijuana to three different Ohio state agencies: the Dept. of Commerce, the State Medical Board, and the Board of Pharmacy. These three agencies oversee the Control Program, with each agency having their own set of responsibilities.

Licensing issues plague the state

The Department of Commerce oversees the licensing of cannabis cultivators. Last year, at the end of July, the department received 185 applications for licenses. It took five months to score the applications, with winners being announced in November.

Ohio utilized a scoring rubric based on cultivator qualifications. This route is always the most time consuming, costly, and the most likely to result in litigation due to potential reviewer error or the lack of information for applicants.

[Read More: California, others seek to nullify past marijuana convictions]

Surprise, surprise. There were issues. One of the people hired to grade cultivator applications had a prior criminal conviction for a drug-related crime, and another scorer had connections to one of the winning applicant organizations. Additionally, cultivating businesses who didn’t win a license filed lawsuits against the Dept.

Two of these lawsuits threatened to delay the already dubious deadline of September 8 further, but Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye ruled that there was “insufficient evidence to justify a halt in further work on permanent licensing.”

Speaking in defense of the licensing process, Hamlin stated “Our argument was always that the application process for the cultivators was legal and valid. When the courts agreed with us on that, that was a big moment for the program to be able to move forward confident that we were able to get to the finish line.”

Thus far, only 26 cannabis cultivation companies have received licenses, and of those 26, only four cultivators have passed the requisite state inspections to start growing product.

Pot cultivation, processing, and patient problems

Like California, Ohio has some pot processing problems. The Department of Commerce will allow 40 cultivators to process marijuana into oils and edibles, but of the 104 applications, the department received, only 10 have met the state requirements.

Additionally, licensed cultivators have run into some actual agricultural issues. Like any other agricultural industry, cannabis cultivators have had to deal with construction, weather delays, and local permitting issues.

As such, the first medicinal marijuana seeds weren’t planted until the end of July 2018. Cannabis requires anywhere from 16 to 22 weeks to reach maturity, meaning that the first plants won’t be ready until the end of November at the earliest.

Finally, Ohio delayed the medical marijuana patient registry. Medical marijuana patients, along with their caregivers, will be required to register with the Board of Pharmacy to receive the requisite patient identification cards necessary to purchase marijuana.

The opening of the online registry was delayed due to the lack of medicinal marijuana available to qualified patients. The Board has not yet announced when the registry will open, but it is safe to assume that it will not open by the Sept. 8 deadline.

A buzzkill for the Buckeye State

With licensing and regulation issues, Ohio medical marijuana patients can expect a bit longer of a wait than they originally anticipated. With the first crops being planted at the end of July, cannabis could be ready for medical consumption by the end of 2018. However, the state has yet to release a new start date for the program.

While this delay in starting the medical marijuana program may result in a major buzzkill for Ohioans, one can only hope that other states hoping to legalize marijuana will learn from these mistakes.

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