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Ohio foray into medical pot begins

Critics concerned about dangers of drug as state prepares for implementation.

With Gov. John Kasich’s signature of medical marijuana legislation, Ohio launched into uncharted territory, even though the drug can be used medically in 25 states.

Some observers noted Thursday that while marijuana is used as medicine in states representing more than half of the nation’s population, as far as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is concerned, it remains a “schedule I” drug, housed in the government’s most restrictive category, along with heroin, Ecstasy and other dangerous drugs.

That means for now, in the federal government’s eyes, marijuana has no accepted medical use.

“I’d like to remind everyone that medical marijuana is still considered a schedule I drug by the federal government,” said Ann Stevens, a Montgomery County Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health department spokeswoman. “And the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) really hasn’t done any science on medical marijuana.”

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While the DEA is reviewing a petition to reclassify marijuana perhaps as early as July, having two levels government with conflicting sets of laws governing the same drug is confusing, said Chris Kershner, Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce vice president of public policy and economic development.

“It’s bureaucracy at its worst,” he said.

Gateway drug?

Stevens said her organization’s position on medical marijuana is simple: Credible research is needed.

In some places where medical use of marijuana is legal, consumers can walk into shops and hear that the substance is “good” for an array of ailments and illnesses — arthritis, cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain and more.

But Stevens argues that no federal research supports those claims in a definitive way.

Marijuana remains a “psycho-active” substance that poses risks for those who are “prone to addiction,” she said. For decades, marijuana has been decried as a “gateway drug,” believed to pave the way for serious drug abuse.

“The thing is, what does marijuana do to the brain, in terms of its circuitry,” Stevens said. “If you are already prone to addiction, what will be the consequences of medical marijana? There really is no research around medical marijuana.”

Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said he finds himself in “wait-and-see” mode.

“I don’t know how this is going to impact us,” he said.

“There’s still not a lot of research into the medical use, but a lot of people insist that medical marijuana has made drastic changes in their lives,” Kelly said.

He noted that marijuana still cannot be grown in Ohio for recreational use. His office has arrested more people and discovered more indoor cultivation than ever, he added. Last August, his office confiscated more than 300 marijuana plants from seven locations across Clark County.

And on Thursday, Springfield police arrested two men in connection to what was called the largest seizure of black tar heroin in the city to date.

“People are continuing to grow marijuana and sell it and distribute it, and it has an impact,” Kelly said. “It’s an element of criminal conduct. People become addicted to whatever they get from it.”

Marijuana laws differ

Kershner said medical marijuana laws are not “one-size-fits-all,” nor should they be.

Ohio’s law was crafted with Ohioans in mind, Kershner said. Just last fall, most Ohio voters rejected a measure to allow recreational and medical marijuana use, a proposed law that would have created a marijuana growth monopoly.

That rejection was taken into account, and the result was a law that lets employers run their businesses with the freedom they need, Kershner said. Employers can allow medical marijuana or they can require a drug-free workplace with regular testing and monitoring, he said.

Trucking companies can continue to maintain zero-tolerance policies, for instance.

“I think folks in Ohio, employees and employers, need to make sure they fully understand the legislation and how it will impact them,” Kershner said.

Important details remain to be worked out in the Buckeye State. It’s still illegal to smoke marijuana. Those using it for medical reasons will have to obtain a prescription for the drug in edible, oil or vapor forms.

Residents may not grow marijuana for recreational use, but those who want to sell it for medical purposes will have to apply with the state Department of Commerce. And there will be restrictions on where marijuana can be grown — not within 500 feel of schools or public playgrounds, for example, or even churches.

The Commerce Department will also oversee processors, testing labs and a seed-to-distribution tracking system.

Physicians certified by the Ohio State Medical Board may prescribe use of the drug for medical reasons, but not if they have a financial interest in the growth or distribution of marijuana.

Too early for details

Kerry Francis, a Commerce Department spokeswoman, said it was too soon to answer questions about the state’s implementation of the law with real precision.

She said that according to the legislation, the “entire program” must be implemented no later than September 2018. But she declined to say whether patients will be able to fill prescriptions before then or how.

“There will lot of interim work,” she said. “We just started the work. This bill is less than 24 hours old.”

State Sen. Kenny Yuko, a Cleveland Democrat who introduced the bill, said he worked on the legislation for some 13 years. Ohio patients already have waited too long for implementation, he said.

He acknowledged that final September 2018 deadline is written into the bill. But he hopes implementation will be much sooner. He sees immediate medical needs that cry out for relief.

“We saw firsthand the devastation, with the kids with the seizures, what they’re living with, day in and day out, our veterans, our senior citizens,” Yuko said. “We need to get these people help.”

A governing commission will need to be seated and approved growers need to be licensed, he said. A commission must decide how to permit growth and transportation of marijuana in the state.

Said Yuko, “Let’s get going on this already.”

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