The Reform of Marijuana Laws in Ohio

The prohibition of marijuana has been an ongoing issue in this country since The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which stated that the possession of marijuana, even for medical purposes, was illegal in the United States under federal law.  However, within the past couple of decades, the reformation and decriminalization of the plant have begun. In 1996, California became the first progressive state to legalize medical marijuana when voters passed Proposition 215 by 56%. Now, this was huge, because it paved the way for 22 other states to follow suit and start reaping the benefits of legal weed. Not only does this beautiful, and 100% natural flower have countless medical uses, but it has also created an extremely gainful market in our economy. In a 2014 study, it was said that the recreational pot trade created 10,000 new jobs in Colorado alone, not including jobs created by medical marijuana sales. In addition, Colorado netted about $69 million from marijuana taxes in the fiscal year that ended June 30. That figure included about $43 million from a 10% sales tax on retail sales and about $26 million from a 15% tax on wholesale sales.


So after discovering these figures, and seeing first hand, the rewards of decriminalization, I’m left to ponder this question… What are you doing, Ohio? Why are we still exhausting police efforts, court costs, and jail/prison space on non-violent pot smokers? Especially when 87% of Ohio voters believe that medical marijuana should be legalized, according to a 2015 state poll. That answer is up for debate, but in my personal opinion, the reason we’ve been so far behind everyone else is simply greed. In 2015, when Issue 3, or the ResponsibleOhio bill, was proposed, many people saw an opportunity to have their medical needs met legally, and for those who just wanted to enjoy a nice heady bowl of some Deathstar OG in the privacy of their own home, the bill would have supported that, as well. But, there were some momentous faults in this bill, which would’ve had a grave impact on our citizens, more specifically, those looking to find work in the marijuana industry. For those who took time to investigate the fine print, there were two key problems with this proposition:


1. Issue 3’s initiative would create a closed-to-the-public monocracy of 10 designated, and already chosen, marijuana cultivation sites.


2. Marijuana cultivation above four homegrown plants would remain illegal in the state, which means Ohio law enforcement would be acting, in effect, as taxpayer-financed protectors of ResponsibleOhio’s cartel.


But what about the folks who just want to be able medicate without worrying about the hammer of the law coming down on them? The people who’d be more than happy simply buying their weed from a dispensary, which c’mon, you’ve got to admit, sounds pretty awesome in itself. Well, for those of you who didn’t look a little further beneath the surface, you’re also missing out on some very key stipulations:


1. Issue 3’s proposal doesn’t address areas of criminal law unaffected by the initiative’s provisions. It will still be a felony to possess or cultivate over 100 grams of marijuana.


2. The sale of any amount of marijuana will also remain a felony. Anyone who grows marijuana and sells it to a friend faces a minimum sentence of a year in prison.


3. This proposal creates an enormous private interest with commercial incentives to oppose further marijuana reform legislation in Ohio.


This wasn’t the only way to get legalization in Ohio, though they would’ve loved for you to believe so. The financial backers of ResponsibleOhio could’ve just as easily brought forth a proposal calling for an open competitive market, the same model that the rest of the industry has successfully been using. Why didn’t they propose this? Because they saw the public’s interest in legal marijuana as perfect leverage for their own personal gain. They sought to reduce personal risk and increase their own potential profits by creating a closed cultivation market with inflated prices and easy profits. The mentality of Ian James, Executive Director of ResponsibleOhio, is the same as that of any other drug cartel: Limit supply, support inflated prices, take advantage and exploit the hard-working citizens of our nation! Fortunately for the people of Ohio, and by the people of Ohio, on November 3, 2015, monopolization of marijuana was voted out. Some might say that this was a defeat for the legalization of marijuana, but I believe it was the exact opposite. It was a victory for marijuana legalization, and a step forward in the marijuana culture.


In less than one year from the failure of Issue of Issue 3, HB 523, a proposal drafted by Ohioans for Medical Marijuana and sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project was passed. The Ohio House of Representatives were the first to sign off on it, followed by the Ohio Senate, two weeks later, and on June 8, 2016 HB 523 was signed by Gov. John Kasich. Under the regulations of this very restrictive bill, patients statewide will have access to various products such as edibles, tinctures, cannabis concentrates, and transdermal patches, however, smoking marijuana will still not be permitted in the state of Ohio. Dried flower will be available to patients for the use of vaporization only. As if it isn’t unsettling enough that uneducated politicians are regulating the way that patients can use their medicine, they are also setting limitations on the amount of THC, marijuana’s main active ingredient, that medicinal products can contain. Flower will not exceed 35% THC and extracts will be capped at 75%. Our government is taking a big step in the wrong direction by setting limitations on things that simply don’t need regulated. In addition, this bill will not protect patients from employers’ zero tolerance drug policies. Sadly, patients can still be fired for the use of a legal natural medication, while opiates and other addictive pharmaceutical drugs are overlooked. The government also uses the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System, a detailed monitoring system that was originally used during this last decade’s opiate crisis, designed to detect doctor shopping, but has unfortunately been extended to medical marijuana. The physicians’ regulations also make it a lengthy process for doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients, increasing their resistance to the program. Doctors are required to apply to the state medical board for a certificate to recommend medical marijuana. Then, they must submit recommendation paperwork to the state board of pharmacy on behalf of each patient they treat and each caregiver. After all of this, the recommendation remains valid for only three months, forcing the process to constantly be repeated for renewals.


Now, even with all of the restrictions and regulations that come with HB 523, there is obviously some very great, progressive aspects to the legalization of weed in Ohio. There are lots of patient rights that will protect Ohioans from all sorts of problems, such as asset forfeiture, revocation of professional licenses, and denial of organ transplants. Parental and custodial rights will not be infringed upon due to the use of medical marijuana, and of course, the Act contains an Affirmative Defense to criminal charges. HB 523 allows five state agencies, including the Department of Commerce, to oversee the regulations. It will have control over the cultivation of cannabis, as well as processing and laboratory testing. This wise move can lead us to anticipate expansion of the agency, once marijuana becomes fully legal. Also, under the regulations of HB 523, it is legal for registered patients to cultivate not more than 12 plants for personal use without a cultivator’s license. Meaning home growing is permitted by law, however, for those with cultivator licenses, HB 523 reads, “A cultivator license holder shall not cultivate medical marijuana for personal, family or household use …” (Sec. 3796.18)


Even today, a year after the Bill was passed and signed by Gov. Kasich, there are still a lot of unanswered questions from the public. I think the biggest question posed, and still unanswered, is what are the rules and regulations of cultivation? We know that licensed cultivators will be permitted to grow marijuana and that the crop can be tested and processed into edibles, oils, plant material, tinctures, and transdermal patches. What we remain in the dark about are some very important details such as who grows, how much they will be permitted to grow, where will the grow sites be, for how long and how much. Will it be similar to Issue 13’s proposition that there will be only 10 sites run by 10 rich investors? Or will regulators permit smaller, independent grows to serve dispensaries with their own individualized strains? Another, quite vague, regulation of HB 523 is the possession limitations. It’s written that it is legal to possess a 90-day supply, as determined by the state board of pharmacy. It’s hard to determine what a “90-day supply” is exactly, as some people may need more or less on a daily basis. Would they determine this amount based on the patient’s medical condition, the amount of THC in the patient’s medicine, or some other individualized factor? It’s also unclear if the board of pharmacy or the doctor will determine the dose frequency and strength. Ohioans are ready for some answers, and although the law has been passed and the decriminalization of marijuana is in effect, patients are still wondering at what point they’ll be able to step inside a dispensary and have access to their organic medicine. It’s stated that Ohio plans to award 60 licenses to operate medical marijuana production facilities, by September, 2018. I’m sure that within the next year, and while the state is completing the development of these 60 sites, all of these questions will be answered more clearly.


Overall, HB 523 is a huge step forward for our state, and for the progression of marijuana, in general. It promises patients in Ohio civil and criminal protection and access to a supply of safe, laboratory-tested marijuana. This bill has the potential to lay a foundation for a very substantial cannabis industry in Ohio. A very big thanks is due to the Ohio Rights Group, as well as all of the other advocates, who fought endlessly and exerted tireless efforts to see that HB 523 was passed. They helped legislators fully understand the power of the plant, and with everyone’s help and support, we can finally say, after 20 years of ignorance and uneducated misinformation, that medical marijuana is legal in Ohio. Is it safe to say, Mission Accomplished?