By: Jessie Balmert of Cincinnati.com
COLUMBUS – In a first for Ohio legislators, House lawmakers passed aÂ plan to legalize medical marijuana after a lengthyÂ debate and hand wringing on both sides of the aisle.
After years of opposing plans to legalize marijuana, medicinal or otherwise, House lawmakers passed a plan 71-26Â Tuesday.Â Members of GOP-controlled HouseÂ âÂ under pressure from two medical marijuana efforts shooting for the November ballotÂ âÂ talkedÂ seriously and passionately about medical marijuana for the first time.
Why now?Â Polls show Ohioans are much more interested inÂ legalizingÂ medical marijuana than the recreational drug.Â The bill’s GOP sponsorÂ Rep. Stephen Huffman, an emergency room physician from Tipp City, said thisÂ proposal is what’s best for patients after the U.S. Food and Drug AdministrationÂ failed to act.
“I am absolutely convinced that there is therapeutic value in medical marijuana,” said Huffman, after reciting a portion of the Hippocratic Oath that physicians take to care for patients. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind.”
For Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, medical marijuana is a needed alternative toÂ opiates for some chronic pain patients. He held up a blank sheet of paper, saying it represented the total number of people who have died of marijuana overdoses. ByÂ comparison, 2,020 deaths were linkedÂ to opiates in 2014Â â nearly 80 percent of all overdose deaths.
Still, Ohio’s GOP-controlled legislature isn’t ready to accept all forms of medical marijuana. The strict bill, introduced after months of testimony from opponents and proponents, would not allow patients to grow marijuana at home or smoke it. Employers could fire employees for having marijuana in their systems, even if it is recommended by a physician.
The proposal is headedÂ to the Senate, where minor changes are expected. The bill could be on Gov. John Kasich’s desk by the end of the month. The governor has said he would support a medical marijuana proposal if it were property written and there was a need for it.
“If the experts come back and say, ‘We need this for people who have seizures,’ I’m for that,” Kasich told Stephen Colbert on the presidential campaign trail.
If passed, Ohio would become the 25th state to legalize medical marijuana. Michigan already allows it, andÂ Pennsylvania recently passed a law.
Most notably, patients would notÂ be allowed to smoke medical marijuana, andÂ tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that gives users their “high,” would be limited to 35 percent ofÂ plants and 70 percent ofÂ extracts. Patients could use a vaporizer, which heats marijuana into a gas or stream rather than burning it to smoke.
- Specifying that one member of the nine-member Medical Marijuana Control Commission should represent patients.
- Allowing caregivers, including parents, to possess marijuana to administer it to someone else, like a child.
- Requiring identification cards for patients and caregivers.
- Specifying about 20Â conditions that would benefit from medical marijuana, includingÂ AIDS,Â cancer, epilepsy or another seizureÂ disorders, chronic pain and traumatic brain injuries. The commission could add other diseases as needed.
- PlacingÂ the commission under the Ohio Department of Commerce rather than Ohio Department of Health. The commerce department currently oversees liquor licenses.
- ReducingÂ marijuana from a Schedule I, the most dangerous group,Â to a Schedule II drug in state law. This would not affect federal law.
- Prohibiting patients from having more than a 90-day supply of medical marijuana.
- Creating a program to help veterans and others afford medical marijuana.
- Increasing the distance between a dispensary or cultivator and schools, churches,Â public libraries, playgrounds andÂ parksÂ from 500 feet to 1,000 feet.
Even with the changes, medical marijuana advocates fear strict restrictions on doctors, including requiring them to provide detailed information about patients every 90 days, will scare off some physicians from recommending medical marijuana. Others worry about the delay. Lawmakers expect patients would be able to access medical marijuana within two years.
âIf they are going to use the threat of our ballot issue to pass a bill through the House, it should be a patient-focused plan that will actually provide medical marijuana to those in need,âÂ said Aaron Marshall, spokesman for Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, a group working toward the November ballot.
Those who opposed the bill, including six lawmakers from Southwest Ohio, did so for different reasons.Â Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Bond Hill and five other Democrats voted against the proposal, because it would not protectÂ workers who use medical marijuana recommended by a physician. Under the bill, they could be reprimanded or fired.
Reece said she was “torn”Â on which way to vote. On one hand, she thought about her mother who died after years of pain from multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. MaybeÂ she would have benefited from medical marijuana. On the other hand, she feared more people, especially African Americans,Â would be sent to jail for small amounts of medical marijuana or fired for a testing positive for the drug.
“Should it be a bill or should it be taken to the people and be in the constitution?” Reece asked. “I’m always a believer in the people. I always think the people know best.”
Rep. Margy Conditt, R-Liberty Township, voted against the billÂ because the FDA has already approved syntheticÂ cannabinoids,Â such as Marinol and Cesamet. The plan would waste taxpayer money setting up a commission that is not necessary, she added.
“I donât like idea of creating an industry that could become a black market,” said Conditt, who worked in the pharmaceutical division ofÂ Procter and Gamble.
Lawmakers hope voters will embrace their measured approach over the twoÂ ballot initiatives working toward the November ballot. BothÂ Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, backed by national marijuana group Marijuana Policy Project, and Athens-based Grassroots Ohio are collecting theÂ 305,591 signatures needed by JulyÂ 6.
“As members of the General Assembly,Â we were elected to lead, not to be lead down a road of a constitutional amendment that could never be changed,” Huffman said.
How did they vote?
For the medical marijuana plan:
Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Mount Lookout
Rep. Tim Derickson, R-Hanover Township
Rep. Jonathan Dever, R-Madeira
Rep. Denise Driehaus, D-Clifton Heights
Rep. Christie Bryant Kuhns, D-Northside
Rep. Ron Maag, R-Salem Township
Rep. Lou Terhar, R-Green Township
Against the medical marijuana plan:
Rep. John Becker, R-Union Township in Clermont County
Rep. Bill Blessing, R-Colerain Township
Rep. Margaret Conditt, R-Liberty Township
Rep. Doug Green, R-Mount Orab
Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Bond Hill
Rep. Wes Retherford,Â R-Hamilton
Rep. Paul Zeltwanger, R-Mason, who missed the voteÂ said he would have voted “no.”