Monday, Nov 12, 2018
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State likely to blow by medical marijuana start date ... with no marijuana

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COLUMBUS — Saturday marks the legal start of Ohio’s nascent medical marijuana program.

But there isn’t a single cannabis leaf legally available in the state to be tested; processed into the oils, tincture, patches, edibles, and other products that can be legally consumed under Ohio’s law; or sold on retail dispensary shelves.

There are no legal seeds made available under what is supposed to be Ohio’s “seed-to-sale” tracking system for licensed cultivator facilities to grow what will feed the supply chain.

“It’s a major disappointment for those of us who worked so hard to pass House Bill 523,” said Mary Jane Borden, treasurer of the marijuana advocacy Ohio Rights Group. “The promise date was set in stone for when everything was to be fully operational.

RELATED: City of Oregon latest to look into marijuana decriminalizationToledo business awarded medical marijuana processing license

“[The law is] almost crippled because there are so few testers, so few processors, delays with plants in dirt,” she said. “It seems like if something could go wrong, it will go wrong, and this program exemplifies that.”

The State Medical Board has certified 222 physicians who may recommend marijuana for their patients, but the State Pharmacy Board has yet to register a patient qualifying for cannabis treatment under Ohio’s 2-year-old law.

Northwest Ohio, like the rest of the state, is waiting to see how medical marijuana will eventually play out here. The region could soon be home to doctors that will prescribe medical marijuana, cultivators that will grow cannabis; processors that will turn it into legally usable products, and dispensaries that will sell it. 

But for now potential patients are left waiting. 

“I understand the expectation that built up around Sept. 8, and I understand the genuine disappointment for people who were really counting on product being available on that date,” said Mark Hamlin, senior policy adviser with the Department of Commerce.

The department set up the regulatory framework for the cultivators that will grow the marijuana, the labs that will test it for safety and potency, and the processors that will manufacture the finished products that will end up on dispensary shelves.

Commerce has licensed 25 growing facilities — 13 large cultivators with up to 25,000 square feet of growing space and 12 smaller facilities with up to 3,000 square feet.

But just four of them have cleared their final inspections, received their certificates to being operations, and are actively growing plants or are ready to do so. Among them are large cultivators OPC Cultivation LLC in Huron and Buckeye Relief LLC in Lake County, and the smaller Agri-Med Ohio LLC in Meigs County and FN Group Holdings LLC in Portage County.

OhioGrow LLC, 367 E. State Line Road in Toledo, is still awaiting a final cultivator certificate. An affiliated entity with the same listed address, Ohio Green LLC, has been awarded a provisional processor license.

Commerce is authorized to award up to 40 licenses for processors, those who will turn cannabis plant matter into oils, patches, tinctures, and edibles that can be legally used under Ohio’s law. The law prohibits the smoking, but it does provide for vapor. Home-growing of marijuana remains illegal.

To date, the department has licensed 11 processors.

Cultivation facilities will be equipped with security cameras that Commerce can directly access as part of its efforts to prevent diversion of marijuana by employees or others from the program for unapproved use.

While the program is set up to track marijuana and its various strains at every stage of production within the system from “seed to sale,” Commerce is largely looking the other way as cultivators on their own acquire start-up seeds because pot remains illegal under federal law.

Later the cultivators are expected to produce their own seeds or clones within the state-tracked system.

The pharmacy board’s registry is ready to go, but it has put off flipping the switch because it knows Ohio may still be months from having product on shelves. Ohio’s current affirmative defense, a kind of wink and a nod in the judicial system, is set under the law 60 days after the registry starts accepting applications. If triggered now, that 60-day clock would likely run out before product is widely available.

That affirmative defense was put in place during the legal limbo between the point that medical marijuana was technically legalized under state law nearly two years ago and the point at which the state has its system up and running to supply it.

Since the law permits sales only by state-licensed retail dispensaries, the affirmative defense allows patients charged with possessing pot obtained from Michigan or elsewhere to make the case before an Ohio judge that they would qualify under Ohio’s law. That defense hasn’t always worked.

The pharmacy board is waiting to hear from Commerce as to when it expects dispensary shelves to be stocked for sale before accepting registrations.

“We don’t want to jump the gun and open the registry too soon,” board spokesman Ali Simon said. “We want to make sure everything aligns.”

The board has issued provisional licenses to 56 retail dispensaries, including dispensaries in Toledo, Maumee, Bowling Green, Sandusky, and Fremont. 

None has received a final certificate of operation yet.

While no marijuana product has been sold legally to date in Ohio, the State Medical Board is already preparing for the possibility of expanding the list of medical conditions that can qualify a patient for treatment.

House Bill 523 lists nearly two dozen conditions but left the door open for the board to consider adding more.

A window will open on Nov. 11 for anyone to submit a petition, accompanied by supporting evidence and research, to add a condition. The window will close on Dec. 31, and then a panel of experts will review the petitions and make recommendations to the board for a final decision.

Contact Jim Provance at jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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