Costs, delays frustrate those waiting on Ohio’s medical pot rollout

Sept 09, 2018
Chris Stewart/CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Lorrie Callahan of West Milton, who has multiple sclerosis, uses cannabidiol to control pain and is now an advocate for medical marijuana patients in Ohio. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

Ohio’s drawn-out process for getting its medical marijuana program off the ground has frustrated some local residents who are wondering when the drug will finally become available and what it will cost when it does.

“I would speculate that a lot of people are not going to be able to use it just because of the cost factor,” said Alanna Sage who has three of the 21 conditions approved by the State Medical Board of Ohio to be treated by medical marijuana.

Medical marijuana was supposed to be in the hands of patients Saturday, but the state missed that key deadline. It could be months before the product arrives on the shelves of local dispensaries.

“Where I’m sitting today we are targeting Jan. 1, that’s what we’re doing,” said Jimmy Gould, chairman of CannAscend Alternative, a company that will operate dispensaries in Dayton and Monroe. “But we can’t have a lot of misses.”

Sage, 64, said she bought medical marijuana legally in California for five years before moving back to Dayton last year.

The potential cost for getting the drug in Ohio is a huge concern for her. One doctor she contacted wanted $345 for a year and offered to put her on a payment plan. In California, her patient fees — not including the medicine — amounted to about $60 a year, she said.

Marijuana was the best treatment for her PTSD and fibromyalgia as well as a debilitating case of arthritis on her spine, which is not improving, Sage said.

“There’s no cure for it, so I have to manage it somehow and I don’t like taking chemical drugs if I don’t have to,” Sage said. “But I’m stuck with it because it looks like I can’t afford the medical marijuana and I’ve got to do something. I can’t not take something.”

Alanna Sage, who was a medical marijuana patient when she lived in California, fears Ohio's program will cost too much for some patients in need. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF Photo: Chris Stewart/CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

Dr. Tim Thress of Ohio Marijuana Card, which has a new office in Sharonville, is one of 222 doctors currently certified to recommend medical marijuana in Ohio. Thress said patients who need medical marijuana will continue to wait in pain.

“People don’t realize how much people are suffering in this country,” he said. “And we are just putting off the treatment. It’s kind of sad how we are not thinking about the actual patients.”

Ohio Marijuana Card, which also has offices in Akron, Beavercreek, Cleveland, Columbus, and Toledo, charges $280 for a year’s service, which can be paid through installments, Thress said. Ohio medical marijuana patients are also required to pay the state an annual $50 registration fee, though discounts may apply to veterans and indigent patients.

Thresh, who spent 30 years working as an OB/Gyn, said politics have kept medicine out of the hands of people who desperately need it.

“I’m not the one making the rules,” he said. “I’m just trying to follow them.”

‘Here for good’

While a few municipalities enacted bans on marijuana facilities, there is now a recognition in the state that the industry is here for good, said Gould, whose CannAscend Alternative received provisional licenses to operate four Strawberry Fields-branded dispensaries, including one at 333 Wayne Ave. in Dayton and another at 300 N. Main St. in Monroe.

“The people that are pulling the oars now in state government — most of state government — know this is going to happen and are on board and working very diligently to not be prohibitive,” he said.

Gould said companies have already invested a tremendous amount of money on application fees, research, development and planning — and acquiring property.

“Options on the properties that everybody’s taken, those can be in the millions of dollars,” he said. “That’s a number that’s not minor. That’s a major number.”

While Gould would not discuss CannAscend Alternative’s specific investments, he said a dispensary build-out could range from $1 million to $1.5 million.

Fees — applications, initial licenses and annual renewals — are supposed to sustain the program. Large-scale cultivators face the heftiest fees: $20,000 for the application, $180,000 for the licensing and $200,000 for annual renewals. Fees for small-scale cultivators are one-tenth of what big growers pay.

Renewal fees for the growers, labs, processors and dispensaries approved by the state will run $5.9 million a year.

Despite millions invested so far, few of the state’s 13 large cultivators and 12 smaller growers have yet to sow seeds. But planting should pick up soon as more get final inspections and operating licenses from the state, including a large Pure Ohio Wellness grow facility at 4020 Dayton-Springfield Road in Mad River Twp., outside of Springfield.

“We’re tidying up basically. We’re pretty close to the end,” said Larry Pegram, president of Pure Ohio Wellness. “They are finishing up some of the irrigation systems, some of the lighting and stuff like that, so we are really close.”

‘Highly skilled trade’

Pure Ohio Wellness also received provisional licenses to operate dispensaries at 1875 Needmore Road in Dayton and 1711 West Main St. in Springfield. The company has also applied to process medical marijuana.

Pegram said when everything is up and running, the company’s investments will reach nearly $10 million.

“It’s a very big investment,” he said. “Obviously we hope to recoup that investment in the future.”

“Economically it’s going to have an impact on the state. There’s going to be more jobs, there’s going to be more money in the state, not only on the tax side but people having income and being able to spend.”

Pegram said the grow operation might begin with 10-12 employees but could expand to 20 within six months. He declined to discuss the potential pay, but said many positions will require a scientific background.

“We’re all the way from general maintenance type people to biologists and botanists, we run the gamut of people,” he said. “We obviously are going to have people who are highly skilled in horticulture and growing.”

If Pure Ohio Wellness is approved to process medical marijuana, Pegram said, “You end up with scientists who are turning this stuff into the oils and into medicine, so it’s a very highly-skilled trade.”

‘I felt like a zombie’

As the timeline drags on, patients like Lorrie Callahan of West Milton can do little more than wait.

Callahan, 42, who has multiple sclerosis, has regularly used CBD — or cannabidiol — to treat it. A recent decision by the Ohio Board of Pharmacy to require any marijuana product, including CBD oil, to be dispensed by a licensed medical marijuana entity angered Callahan.

CBD is a non-psychoactive product of hemp that is legal, yet it will be off-limits temporarily because the dispensaries are not yet up and running.

“It angers me quite a lot,” Callahan said. “I’ve had MS for 10 years. This is something that has changed my life dramatically.”

Callahan said she has struggled to find the right medicine to relieve her pain, at one time taking a dozen pills a day.

“I was bedridden for awhile. I don’t want to be like that anymore,” she said. “When I was taking all those pills I felt like a zombie. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t have a life.”