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Government/Politics

Medical Marijuana Law Takes Effect In Two Weeks, And Still Much Work To Do

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A day that medical marijuana activists have been waiting on for decades dawns on September 8, when the state law creating a medical marijuana program in Ohio takes effect. But with less than two weeks to go, there’s a lot of work to do.

The medical marijuana law came grew out of the ResponsibleOhio issue from last fall – which would have legalized both medicinal and recreational pot use. It lost by a 2-1 margin, but even those opposed to it said it had sparked a conversation about marijuana as a medical tool. Rep. Kirk Schuring (R-Canton) headed up a task force in the House that ended up crafting the new medical marijuana law after hearing hours of testimony, mostly from supporters of the idea. He says it’s a complicated issue that needs to be handled carefully.  “We’re building a whole new industry, and we want to make sure we do it right,” Schuring said. “That’s what was so important about the legislation – doing it through the Revised Code versus the Constitution. We think we have the best medical marijuana law in the entire United States.”

The law passed in May with three quarters of the House supporting it, but with “no” votes from 20 Republicans and six Democrats. The law got past the Republican dominated Senate by only a three vote margin.  A panel of lawmakers that approves spending outside the budget put the first $1.8 million toward the program just a few days ago. But with less than two weeks before the law takes effect, there are many questions about the program, such as: who will be on the commission, who and how many growers will there be, and how will patients get their medical marijuana cards. Sen. Kenny Yuko (D-Richmond Heights) has been fighting for medical marijuana for 13 years. When asked if he thinks it appears that the bill might not be a priority for some lawmakers because of concerns about medicinal pot, he answers: “I think there’s a lot of truth to that, that we are going to have some difficult times getting implemented. I think there’s a lot of people who look at the economic value of a bill like this and getting the taxes, tax revenue from people who are growing and those who are distributing the product. But if we don’t get the doctors writing the recommendations, we’re not going to have a whole lot to deal with,” Yuko said.

That’s a key issue, since the FDA has refused to take marijuana off its list of most dangerous drugs – it classifies pot as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin, ecstasy and bath salts. Representatives from the medicine will be on the fourteen-member Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee, which will also include pharmacists, law enforcement officers, and drug and alcohol counselors. Schuring said their input will be very important in creating the program. “They’re going to give a lot of advice and counsel to the rule-making authorities to make sure we do it the right way. Sometimes when you embark on something like this, it’s important that you go slowly and deliberatively, so that we do it right. And I can’t emphasize that enough,” Schuring said.

But the members of that committee won’t be appointed till a month after the law takes effect. Yuko said now is the time to be talking to those people to get some ideas started. “I think we’re way behind. In reality, do you think we do not have any idea of who the commission members will be? If we do know who they’re going to be, why aren’t we working with them from Day One?”

For instance, Yuko says he thinks some basic proposals on patient eligibility for the cards and locations of growers could be worked on starting now.  The law was moved along in part because a national group with ballot issue success had launched a plan to put a constitutional amendment on medical marijuana before voters this fall. Schuring says he’s not worried that those who wanted the ballot issue will be so frustrated at the progress of the medical marijuana program that they’ll try it again, and Yuko is cautiously optimistic that the ballot issue supporters won’t be back.

Schuring says the rules on growers won’t be set until the spring, and rules for processors, dispensers and doctors aren’t due until a year after the law takes effect. It’s estimated the medical marijuana program will take up to two years to be fully implemented, but when it is, experts in the industry expect sales of around $400 million a year, and up to two percent of the population – more than 230,000 people – registering for the program.

You can hear more from Rep. Schuring and Sen. Yuko on "The State of Ohio" here.

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