Ohio Passes MMJ Legislation: Will Other States Follow Suit?

Story by Michael S. Hagar

     It would have granted marijuana growers rights to 10 wealthy investor groups, which highly resembled an oligopoly. The proposed amendment failed with 63.65% of voters against its passage.
     A lot has changed in nearly a year, and on Wednesday June 8, 2016, Ohio became the 26th state in the US to legalize medicinal marijuana when Governor John Kasich signed House Bill 523 into law. This is a big move for Governor Kasich and Ohio; however, many argue that the bill doesn’t go far enough and leaves much to be desired. 
     Throughout the past year the Marijuana Policy Project, Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, and individual advocates have been fighting for a more comprehensive plan that would have expanded on the limitations and shortcomings of HB 523. After nearly a year of signature-gathering, Ohioans have settled for a foot-in-the-door rather than a “perfect” bill.
     Ohio’s HB 523 allows individuals with qualifying conditions to use medical marijuana and not be treated as criminals breaking the law. Supervision and oversight of the medical marijuana program will be conducted by the Ohio State Medical Board and Board of Pharmacy along with the Ohio Department of Commerce. Epilepsy, chronic pain, Crohn’s disease, AIDS, glaucoma, ALS, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, fibromyalgia, hepatitis C, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, sickle cell anemia and cancer are included as qualifying conditions in Ohio HB 523. Although the bill covers this wide range of illnesses, the list still leaves medicinal cannabis out of reach for thousands with other conditions who may benefit from its use as well.
     Other stipulations and limitations of the bill include the inability of patients to cultivate their own marijuana plants and the disqualificationof “smoking” as medically valid. Instead, patients will be required to ingest their medicine through vaporization, transdermal patches, or medicated edibles that can be eaten orally. Some might view this technicality as rather odd, since cannabis use has not been shown to cause cancer or lead to respiratory problems. However, when speaking about cannabis in a medical context mostdoctors will not recommend inhaling any form of combusted material into the lungs—so the rule makes sense from this angle.
     Although HB 523 has been signed into the law, medical cannabis will not be grown in Ohio for potentially up to two years, and the bill does not allow the personal cultivation of medicinal marijuana either. Instead, when the law goes into effect 90 days after the Governor has signed it, patients seeking medicinal marijuana who have received a physician’s recommendation will have to source their medicine from nearby states.  That solution is interesting, considering most states bar the transport of recreational or medicinal marijuana from one state to another and the Cole memo expressly prohibits such activity. Patients using medicinal marijuana legally will also have no legal protections against being fired from their workplace if company policies ban the use of marijuana, even in a medicinal context. Despite these apparent shortcomings, HB 523 is a step in the right direction and a welcome change from Ohio’s draconian policies of the past.
     Although Ohio became the 26th state to pass medical marijuana laws, major government entities still suggest firmly that cannabis is indeed not a medicine. Now that over half of the nation seems to firmly disagree with this theory, many advocates are looking toward the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to re-evaluate their long-held positions on the plant. Let’s take a look at the history of cannabis scheduling to see how we got here and then we’ll explore any new evidence of potential changes on the horizon.
     Since the 1970s, marijuana has been considered a schedule I drug by the DEA under the Controlled Substances Act, which means that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.” This definition places marijuana in the same category as the mescaline-containing peyote cactus, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), and lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD. In the past few decades many researchers have stated that marijuana is actually one of the least-addictive drugs and that it may possess a myriad of potential physical and mental health benefits.
     In 1996 the state of California voted on Proposition 215 and became the first state to legalize the use of medical cannabis despite it being federally illegal. Following in California’s footsteps, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, giving over 175 million Americans access to the medicine, all while it remained listed as a Schedule 1 substance with no accepted medical value.
     For years medical cannabis remained a priority target for the feds. This led to many documented incidents of raids on cannabis facilities, such as grow-ops and dispensaries, in states like California. Finally on October 19, 2009, the sitting Attorney General of the Department of Justice, Eric Holder, issued a statement regarding the allocation of resources and the federal pursuit and prosecution of patients, growers, and caregivers using medicinal marijuana in states that have deemed its use legal. He said “It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal.” This marked the first time the federal government officially lightened its stance on cannabis use and remains the policy of the DOJ to this day.
     The DEA however, has not been as quick to change their ways. Only this past year the current chief of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, admitted that marijuana is “probably not” as dangerous as heroin, but he still maintains his position that medical marijuana is “a joke.” Considering the unadulterated use of cannabis has historically caused zero fatalities, while according to the CDC, prescription opioid overdoses of methadone, oxycodone, and hydrocodone have caused over 165,000 deaths and led to the addiction of over 2,000,000 individuals between 1999 and 2014 alone, Rosenberg’s position seems a bit more like the actual joke. In fact, his comment on medical marijuana drove a change.org petition that garnered over 151,000 signatures calling for his resignation. Luckily, Chief Rosenberg does not single-handedly develop or dictate official DEA policy, and there does appear to be light at the end of this tunnel.
     In an exciting change after decades of stagnancy the US Congress passed a historical bipartisan amendment that lifted the ban on VA doctors discussing and recommending medical marijuana to their patients in states that have legalized its use. The amendment was spearheaded in the House by Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steven Daines (R-MT) in the Senate and passed by a healthy majority before being sent to the President’s desk. The amendment doesn’t appropriate any federal funding for medicinal marijuana programs directly, as that would still violate federal law given the Schedule 1 status of cannabis. However, this move does reflect a shift in the national perception of medical marijuana use. Now, instead of fearing legal ramifications, VA doctors have the ability to suggest that patients try medical cannabis to help decreaseopiate use for chronic pain or to try and slay the mental monster that is PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Most states that have legalized medical marijuana have seen dramatic reductions in opiate overdoses and, although the mechanism of action remains unclear, certain strains of cannabis seemed perfectly tuned toward combatting the symptoms of PTSD, depression, and other mental health issues that arise all too commonly in our veterans.
     Although short of medical cannabis endorsements, many view these recent Congressional actions as an indicator that the US might finally be ready to change its official policies on at least medical cannabis. In fact, at the time of this writing, word on the street has it that the DEA is about to wrap up their re-evaluation of marijuana scheduling and are expected to release an official statement on the topic within the next month.
     Regardless of what happens at the national level it’s pretty clear that the states are ready to take matters into their own hands when faced with inaction. Whether by a state-by-state toppling domino effect or by top down legislative changes, medical marijuana is currently sweeping the nation and challenging the long-held belief that it has no medical value. Ohio and its voters have officially pushed us passed the halfway mark, but whether or not this is a tipping point remains to be seen in the coming months.