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Ohio lawmakers voted on a medical marijuana plan Tuesday.
Ohio lawmakers voted on a medical marijuana plan Tuesday.(Photo: Getty Images)

COLUMBUS – In a first for Ohio legislators, House lawmakers passed a plan to legalize medical marijuana after a lengthy 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 71-26 Tuesday. Members of GOP-controlled House – under pressure from two medical marijuana efforts shooting for the November ballot – talked seriously and passionately about medical marijuana for the first time.

Why now? Polls show Ohioans are much more interested in legalizing medical marijuana than the recreational drug. The bill’s GOP sponsor Rep. Stephen Huffman, an emergency room physician from Tipp City, said this proposal is what’s best for patients after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 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 to 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. By comparison, 2,020 deaths were linked to opiates in 2014 – nearly 80 percent of all overdose deaths.

Online Medical Card

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 headed 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, and Pennsylvania recently passed a law.

The bill has changed in some significant ways since it was introduced last month.

Online Medical Card

Most notably, patients would not be allowed to smoke medical marijuana, and tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that gives users their “high,” would be limited to 35 percent of plants and 70 percent of extracts. Patients could use a vaporizer, which heats marijuana into a gas or stream rather than burning it to smoke.

Other changes include:

  • 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 20 conditions that would benefit from medical marijuana, including AIDS, cancer, epilepsy or another seizure disorders, chronic pain and traumatic brain injuries. The commission could add other diseases as needed.
  • Placing the commission under the Ohio Department of Commerce rather than Ohio Department of Health. The commerce department currently oversees liquor licenses.
  • Reducing marijuana from a Schedule I, the most dangerous group, 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, public libraries, playgrounds and parks 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.

“If 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,” 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. Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Bond Hill and five other Democrats voted against the proposal, because it would not protect workers who use medical marijuana recommended by a physician. Under the bill, they could be reprimanded or fired.

Reece said she was “torn” 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. Maybe she would have benefited from medical marijuana. On the other hand, she feared more people, especially African Americans, 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 bill because the FDA has already approved synthetic cannabinoids, such as Marinol and Cesamet. The plan would waste taxpayer money setting up a commission that is not necessary, she added.

“I don’t like idea of creating an industry that could become a black market,” said Conditt, who worked in the pharmaceutical division of Procter and Gamble.

Lawmakers hope voters will embrace their measured approach over the two ballot initiatives working toward the November ballot. Both Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, backed by national marijuana group Marijuana Policy Project, and Athens-based Grassroots Ohio are collecting the 305,591 signatures needed by July 6.

“As members of the General Assembly, 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, R-Hamilton

Absent: 

Rep. Paul Zeltwanger, R-Mason, who missed the vote said he would have voted “no.”

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