Some say Senate bill to fix Ohio's medical marijuana program would be a disaster
Ohio's medical marijuana program has been the subject of complaints by some Ohioans since it was created. Critics have said it's complicated, the products are too expensive, there were too few dispensaries and the program didn't cover enough conditions.
But lawmakers find themselves in a tricky spot over how to change it to make it more patient-friendly, and perhaps stave off a potential ballot measure that could ultimately end up legalizing marijuana sales to anyone 21-years-old or over.
A group that wants to allow marijuana to be regulated like alcohol is poised to collect signatures to put the issue before voters this November.
Sen. Kirk Schuring (R-Canton) was one of the architects of the current medical marijuana program established in 2016. In recent testimony before the Senate's General Government Committee, Schuring explained his new bill addresses a supply chain issue that needs to be fixed.
"At the end of the day, those who need medical marijuana have to pay an inordinate price to get their medication, to the point where it is not competitive in the marketplace. If you live in northwestern Ohio, they’ll go to Michigan because it’s a much more efficient and effective program there. If you don’t live in northwestern Ohio, many of the folks go to the black market,” Schuring said.
Schuring said he believes that’s the case because only about half of the people who have registered for the state’s medical marijuana program at some point are still using their medical marijuana card.
Sen. Steve Huffman (R-Tipp City), who is a medical doctor, said black market marijuana poses a threat to Ohioans.
“There are people out there who will lace it with fentanyl and make it very dangerous,” Huffman said.
The Senate bill Huffman and Schuring support would create one panel to oversee all aspects of the program instead of dividing duties for different areas between three entities as is the case now.
“In 2016, we didn’t know what we didn’t know and we made this bill with a lot of safeguards. And a lot of those safeguards is costing the business, the industry, money," Huffman said.
The bill would not allow home-grown marijuana and would not allow cannabis that can be smoked. And it wouldn't be taxed because it is considered medicinal. But it would relax some of the testing now required. And it would allow more companies to participate in the program.
Matt Close, executive director of the Ohio Medical Cannabis Industry Association, said it would be a bad idea to allow more businesses to come into the medical marijuana program right now.
"This is about economics 101. It's supply and demand. And this is simply a massive marijuana expansion bill," Close said.
Close and others who supply product under the current program said since the number of people in the medical marijuana program has flattened, allowing more businesses to participate in the program changes would hurt existing suppliers.
“It's going to cause a cannibalization within the market," Close said.
Some in the industry told reporters on a Monday conference call they liked the idea of expanding the program to include more conditions like anxiety, depression and insomnia. And they said some regulations should be loosened or eliminated. They said strict rules on advertising or public education of products and the program has led to patients not understanding it. Close said the price of product in Ohio has been dropping in recent years.
"Our pricing has dropped significantly. Our pricing is 50% less than in Pennsylvania," Close said.
Bryan Murray, executive vice president of government relations for the cannabis cultivation company Acreage Holdings, said it's important to remember the current suppliers are not able to get more capital to deal with market changes like other industries might. He noted Congress failed to pass a bill last year that would have allowed cannabis producers to fully participate in banking like other businesses.
"The idea that the legislature would dump a lot of supply into the market when their isn't a commiserate demand for that product is going to send prices plummeting and in a market where you can't get access to capital, businesses in Ohio, cannabis businesses, are likely to just shut their doors," Murray explained.
Huffman said he believes the federal government is part of the problem.
“The real reason we are here is the true failure of the federal government as they continue to classify marijuana as a schedule one drug which means there is no medical purpose," Huffman said.
And Huffman said there is a medicinal value in cannabis. He pointed to the fact that a pharmaceutical drug derived from cannabis is being used to prevent seizures in children. Schuring said lawmakers need to do something.
“If we don’t fix the supply chain, there will be other elements that will come in and turn everything upside down with medical and recreational marijuana," Huffman said.
Schuring was likely referring to supporters of an initiated statute that would allow marijuana to be regulated like alcohol. Ohio lawmakers have until May 3 to pass it. And if they don’t, the coalition supporting the proposal said it will collect the more than 116,000 additional signatures needed to put the issue before voters in November.