COLUMBUS — Ohio could soon become the 25th state to legalize medical marijuana if Gov. John Kasich signs a plan passed Wednesday.
By a margin of just three votes, senators approved legalizing medical marijuana while still prohibiting smoking and growing marijuana at home. The close vote showed how divided Ohio lawmakers remain on marijuana, even for medical purposes. But in the end, a majority wanted control over the state’s medical marijuana operation, hoping to forestall a group pushing a constitutional amendment.
House lawmakers approved the Senate’s version of the bill late Wednesday, sending it to Gov. John Kasich’s desk.
If Kasich signs the bill, Ohio would become the 25th state to legalize medical marijuana. Kasich hasn’t said whether he’ll support this plan but has expressed interest in passing some sort of bill related to medical marijuana, especially targeting children suffering from epilepsy.
All Wednesday, lawmakers were counting votes to see if the bill would pass the Senate. “All I can do is my best to keep drugs out of the Ohio Constitution,” Sen. Dave Burke, R-Marysville, told The Enquirer Wednesday morning. He and Sen. Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights, held town hall meetings across the state to listen to residents’ concerns about medical marijuana.
They watched as the bill barely passed committee Wednesday morning, 7-5. Four Republicans and Cleveland-area Democrat Sen. Michael Skindell opposed the bill. Sen. Edna Brown, D-Toledo, tried to remove a passage that would allow employers to fire employees who test positive for medical marijuana and prohibit them from drawing unemployment benefits – a poison pill for some Democrats. But her request was quickly rejected.
“This bill is not perfect, folks, but it’s what Ohio patients need,” Yuko told colleagues Wednesday evening. “If we can give just one veteran comfort, if we can ease just one cancer patient’s pain, if we can save one child’s life, this bill will be worth it.”
Even those who eventually supported this bill, like Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Township, seemed to do so begrudgingly. “I don’t like this bill,” Coley started. But he thought it was more responsible than the possible constitutional amendment. “It’s the best option possible to prevent a travesty,” Coley said. Money laundering and the “wink-wink” use of recreational marijuana could take place under other medical marijuana plans, he said.
Others, like Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, said there hasn’t been enough medical research to approve legalizing medical marijuana.
Earlier in the month, House legislators passed the medical marijuana plan by a comparatively wide margin, 71-26. Still, some Democrats, including Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Roselawn, voted against the plan because of the provisions allowing employees to be fired for marijuana use.
The threat of a constitutional amendment on medical marijuana loomed over lawmakers. Two groups are working toward qualifying for the November ballot. The leading effort, backed by Ohioans for Medical Marijuana with support from marijuana-legalization giant Marijuana Policy Project, would allow people to grow marijuana and smoke it. The constitutional amendment would allow 15 large marijuana operations and numerous smaller farms across the state. It’s not clear how many cultivators would be allowed under the lawmakers’ plan.
Ohioans for Medical Marijuana vowed late Wednesday to move forward with its effort.
“Our constitutional amendment builds on the legislature’s work by incorporating national best practices and offers voters an opportunity to enact a law free of the horse-trading inherent in the legislative process,” spokesman Aaron Marshall said in a statement. “Our amendment also protects the rights of patients in the Ohio Constitution, not leaving this important issue vulnerable to the reach of special interests.”
Marshall’s group and Athens-based Grassroots Ohio have until July 6 to collect the more than 305,000 signatures needed to put their proposals before voters.
What’s in the Legislature’s medical marijuana legalization plan?
- Adults could buy and use oil, tinctures, plant material, edibles and patches with a doctor’s recommendation. Parents could purchase these products for their children younger than 18 with a doctor’s referral.
- The Ohio Department of Commerce would oversee those who grow, process and test medical marijuana. The Ohio Board of Pharmacy would register patients and caregivers and license dispensaries. The Ohio State Medical Board would handle certificates for doctors who want to recommend marijuana.
- A program to reduce the cost of medical marijuana for veterans and others too poor to pay.
- The ability to purchase medical marijuana from other states while Ohio sets up its program. This would expire 60 days after the pharmacy board establishes its rules.
- Legal medical marijuana for people with these conditions: AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cancer, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy or another seizure disorder, glaucoma, hepatitis C, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, pain that is chronic, severe, or intractable, Parkinson’s disease, positive status for HIV, posttraumatic stress disorder, sickle cell anemia, spinal cord disease or injury, Tourette’s syndrome, traumatic brain injury, and ulcerative colitis.
What’s not in the plan?
- Smoking medical marijuana
- Growing medical marijuana at home
- Any details on who could grow marijuana commercially. That would be determined later by the Ohio Department of Commerce.
- Any requirement that pharmacists oversee dispensaries. That was initially added by senators then removed Tuesday.
- Protections for employees fired from their jobs because they used medical marijuana.
How did they vote?
For medical marijuana legalization
Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Township
Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township
Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-North Avondale
Against medical marijuana legalization
Sen. Joe Uecker, R-Miami Township
Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Clearcreek Township
Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, who is mulling a bid for statewide office in 2018