Medical marijuana has been legal in Ohio since 2019, but patient surveys have shown that the program is in dire need of an overhaul. High prices and a confusing regulatory structure have kept would-be cannabis patients (and small businesses who want to make their medicine) from participating in the program. With other legislative efforts failing, SB 261 looks to be the lone possibility to make substantial changes to the Ohio medical cannabis program in 2022.
Legislative Measures Introduced in 2021 to Increase Patient Access
Efforts to further legalize cannabis were levied in both houses of the Ohio Legislature last year, to no avail. House Bill 628 introduced in April 2021 by Reps. Upchurch, Denson, and Weinstein (D) aimed to adopt an adult use (recreational) marijuana program in Ohio, as well as allow patients to grow marijuana plants at home. This bill essentially died, meaning that it received no committee assignments or cosponsors. Two similar bills also have not received any further review and a recently settled lawsuit will push the potential for a ballot measure to 2023.
House Bill 60 was introduced by Representatives Juanita Brent (D) and Bill Seitz (R) on February 2, 2021, to authorize medical marijuana for autism spectrum disorder. The bill passed the House by a vote of 73-13 on March 2, 2022. The bill was introduced in the Senate on March 8, 2022 and got a Sponsor testimony on March 30, 2022.
Senate Bill 261
Senate Bill 261 was introduced by Senator Stephen Huffman (R-Tipp City) on November 9, 2021. Sen. Huffman was an early champion of HB 523, which was the law that began the medical marijuana program in Ohio. Huffman now thinks the program needs an overhaul, which is why he wrote SB 261. “It makes [the program] more patient-centered, and as a physician, I’ve always been for making it patient-centered, that they can get it for the right conditions and the right way for a good price,” Huffman said.
The bill set out to revise the current medical marijuana program in numerous ways:
- Increase cultivation space
- Add qualifying medical conditions
- Increase the number of forms of use
- Raise THC levels
- Create more lenient advertising rules
- Streamline the purview of the commerce department and pharmacy board
SB 261 passed the Senate on December 15, 2021 and moved to the House on December 22, 2021. Most recently, the bill received its fourth hearing in the House Government Oversight Committee on April 27, 2022.
Business Leaders Push for SB 261
Cincinnati’s James Gould is CEO of CannAscend Processing Ohio and Green Light Acquisitions, a holding company focused on entities in the regulated cannabis market. Having raised $28 million for a marijuana legalization campaign in 2015, Gould served on the Ohio House Medical Marijuana Task Force to assist the State with House Bill 523.
Gould gathered business leaders and advocates to discuss SB 261 at his offices at the Scripps Center in Cincinnati on May 23rd. “We’re talking about saving House Bill 523’s medical program by passing Senate Bill 261.” Gould further implored those in the room that “this bill needs to get this out of committee and get in front of the House and vote–because what this will do is it will help drive prices down.”
Four CannAscend Ohio dispensaries were sold to Columbia Care in July 2021. Gould says his business was impacted by the current regulatory structure of the medical marijuana program. “What’s happening is we’re forcing people to sell rather than operate. And I’m one of those people because I can’t get biomass.” Gould further explains that the complicated relationship between the Pharmacy Board and the Commerce Department is shutting out smaller, local cannabis companies like his in favor of large multi-state operators.
Business Leader Wants More Patient-Centric Legislation
Gould says he hopes that SB 261 can help more patients gain access to the medical marijuana program. And, more specifically, Gould wants those who registered for cards but aren’t buying cannabis from the dispensaries to know that SB 261 aims to make it easier for them. “Right now 137,800 patients are not using their registration. That’s a real problem.”
Gould continues, ”It’s time we’ve got to take care of our veterans who have been over there fighting for us. We’ve got to take care of patients who are suffering that we can help. And most importantly, we’re going to correct this program.”
Advocates asked Gould about the implications of improving the current medical marijuana program over pursuing an adult use program: “If we can’t get this right, how are you going to talk about adult use? You’re gonna have such a bad scene that it won’t work. And that’s not what we want. We want something that does work.”
Support From the House
As the bill now needs to pass in the House, Representative Seitz is among those championing this effort. Seitz also co-sponsored HB 60, and said he did so strategically to help push along SB 261. “Part of the reason I wanted to push the autism bill was to smoke out who are the people that are going to vote no on anything that’s got the word marijuana in it,” Seitz said.
Seitz explained that the regulatory structure of the program hurts businesses, which ultimately hurts patients. “Currently in Ohio,” Suez explained, “Whether you are a cultivator, a processor, a dispensary, no matter where you are in the chain, you have to deal with the Pharmacy Board, the Commerce Department, and the Medical Board. Three different silos that do not work well together and have a very clunky administrative system.”
Seitz explains that another thing SB 261 does is to modestly expand the number of conditions for which medical marijuana may be recommended by a physician.
The bill looks promising to pass, but still needs support, says Seitz. “The Senate passed SB 261 with a vote of 26 to 5. That’s very, very encouraging.”
The best way advocates can help SB 261 is to email and call every legislator on the House Government Oversight committee requesting passage of the bill.