In exactly one year, Ohioans with qualifying health conditions are, by law, supposed to be able to buy medical marijuana.
But will they?
"Absolutely," said Ohio Commerce Director Jacqueline T. Williams, whose agency oversees the medical marijuana program. "I'm confident we will be able to get the program up and running as the legislature intended.'
Williams' agency, which worked with the Ohio Board of Pharmacy and the Ohio Medical Board to build the marijuana program from the ground up, said Ohio had the advantage of drawing on the experience of 25 other states with some form of marijuana program on the books.
"People are going to utilize these products as medicine. We have a real responsibility to come up with a program that is safe for those individuals who use this product as patients in the future," Williams said.
As required by House Bill 523, the medical marijuana law approved last year by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. John Kasich, hundreds of new rules had to be in place by today. The law requires that the program must be up and running, with medical marijuana available to patients, on Sept. 8, 2017.
?The law says medical marijuana can be recommended by a certified physician to patients with any of 21 qualifying medical conditions: AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy or another seizure disorder, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, hepatitis C, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, pain that is either chronic and severe or intractable, Parkinson’s disease, positive status for HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder, sickle cell anemia, spinal cord disease or injury, Tourette’s syndrome, traumatic brain injury, and ulcerative colitis.?
Patients 21 and holder can receive a supply of up to 90 days in the form of oils, tinctures, patches, plant materials for vaporizing but not smoking, and edibles.
Meeting the one-year deadline will be a huge challenge. The 24 growers won't be picked until November and there is much work to be done after that in 10 months: building secure indoor growing facilities; growing and harvesting marijuana crops (which takes 13 to 14 weeks); processing marijuana into approved products; testing products for purity, quality and content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC); distribution to dispensaries; and, finally, sale to customers.
One cultivator applicant, who asked not be identified because applications haven't been approved, said, "We're very confident we'll be able to meet all the deadlines." However, he said it is unclear if dispensaries will be open to sell products by September next year.
There were 185 cultivator applicants, with 109 seeking one of 12 larger growing licenses for 25,000 square feet, with 76 vying for 12 smaller growing licenses of up to 3,000 square feet. Large cultivators paid a $20,000 application fee, plus a $180,000 license fee if approved, and $200,000 annual renewal fee. Small growers must pay a $2,000 application fee, $18,000 first-year licensing fee, and $20,000 annual renewal fee.
The state is expected to approve 40 processing facilities, some of them owned by cultivation firms. They will pay a $10,000 application fee, first-time operating fee of $90,000, and a $100,000 license annual renewal fee.
The testing of marijuana products remains up in the air. While higher education entities were supposed to step forward under the law to provide testing for the first year, most declined for fear of complications from federal law that says marijuana cultivation, sale and use is illegal. Only Hocking College in Nelsonville stepped forward to offer to be a tester.
Testers must certify marijuana products are free of fungus and other things affecting quality, as well as verifying the amount of THC, the psychotropic component of marijuana that gives users a "high."
Commerce spokeswoman Jennifer Stephanie Gostomski said the selection of 60 marijuana dispensaries, scattered around the state, won't be made until next year. The sites will allocated by region not by county. For example, Franklin County will have three dispensaries, while some counties will have none.
The final link in the chain involves doctor and patients. Medical doctors and osteopathic physicians must receive two hours of special training and be certified before being allowed to recommend marijuana to patients.
Tessie Pollock of the State Medical Board said it isn't known how many of 46,000 licensed doctors in the state will seek marijuana certification. An informal survey found only about 11 percent of the 3,000 who responded said they would be likely to recommend marijuana to a qualifying patient.
Cameron McNamee of the Ohio Board of Pharmacy said qualifying patients must have a doctor's recommendation before registering online for a marijuana card. Patients must pay $50 for a card and caregivers $25, with similar annual renewal fees. Patient registration won't be available until next year, he said.
(Alan Johnson is a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch)