FarmaceuticalRX’s CEO speaks at the House Medical Marijuana Task Force

The House Medical Marijuana Task Force took what’s become a typical mix of testimony at its final hearing Thursday, facing stories of patients wracked by debilitating pain, seizures or other conditions, businesses concerned about liability and workplace safety, experts familiar with other states’ legalization experiences, and clinicians with diverse views on the topic.

“For those of you who might be curious, I want to let you know I will be meeting with the speaker of the Ohio House early next week, specifically on Tuesday, to talk about next action steps that we will be taking. So stayed tuned. There’s more to come,” said Rep. Kirk Schuring (R-Canton), chairman of the task force, at the outset of the hearing.

Among the day’s witnesses, the Ohio Chamber and its affiliates in major metro areas brought forth a list of key questions and concerns that they said need addressing should Ohio legalize marijuana for medical use, as did the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

“It is awfully important that we look at the rights, policies, procedures, liabilities and autonomy of Ohio’s employers as we look at this serious concern,” said Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Phil Parker, representing the coalition of chambers, while stressing that the policy recommendations are not meant to be seen as an endorsement of legalization.

Parker said any medical legalization proposal must include such elements as protecting employers’ human resources and drug-screening policies and procedures, and barring those fired for policy violations from collecting unemployment compensation.

Tony Seegers, state policy director for the Farm Bureau Federation, noted a policy federation members adopted in December that opposes recreational use and lists several elements that must make the foundation of any potential medical legalization proposal. Among them are preventing a monopoly structure like that included in last year’s failed State Issue 3, as well as generally keeping related policy questions out of the Ohio Constitution, plus developing a strong regulatory system and funding for addiction and treatment programs.

Chris Stock, a task force member and attorney who was involved in the Issue 3 campaign, asked Seegers to expound on the monopoly concerns, asking whether the federation could support a system with only four cultivation licenses, or conversely one that allows as many licenses as the market will bear.

Seegers said the federation’s policy discussions have not reached that level of detail, but he said generally they’d like to see equal opportunity for participation should legalization occur.

Rep. Dan Ramos (D-Lorain) asked if the farm bureau has an opinion on the question of indoor versus outdoor cultivation. Seegers again said policy discussions hadn’t reached that depth, but he speculated the organization probably would support whatever method would be the most efficient use of resources.

Also among business and regulatory issues addressed Thursday were the constraints federal law places on banks’ involvement with marijuana business.

Dustin Holfinger, vice president of state government relations for the Ohio Bankers League, said despite state-level legalization of marijuana, any banks that handle proceeds from marijuana-related conduct still face the prospect of federal prosecution under national laws on drugs, terrorism, banking, racketeering and corruption. Though the U.S. Department of Justice’s so-called “Cole Memo” directs federal prosecutors and law enforcement to focus on issues like preventing distribution to minors or diversion of marijuana income to criminal enterprises, Holfinger said it can’t prevent prosecutors from pursuing banks involved in the business. He also noted that such guidance could quickly change, particularly with a presidential election on the horizon.

During questioning, Holfinger said he’s not aware of any league members who are interested in involvement with marjiuana-related businesses. He also told task force member Jimmy Gould, a major Issue 3 backer, that the use of state-chartered institutions does not solve the problems because those institutions must still follow federal guidelines.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Brown was one of those urging legalization Thursday, saying it could bring relief to his younger daughter, Daryn, who suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. Brown said his daughter had hoped to testify herself, but was hospitalized Tuesday because of problems with an implanted medicine pump.

Brown said as a cancer survivor, he also believes he could have benefited from medical marijuana during his treatment, saying he’d likely have much preferred its effects to those of the fentanyl patches he wore for most of 2014.

Brown said his daughter hasn’t tried medical marijuana yet, mindful of her parents’ role as public officials and the drug’s illegal status in Ohio. However, he said she’d likely have gone to a jurisdiction where it’s legal if not for the fact that her condition largely prevents her from traveling.

Tara Cordle, a Wheelersburg woman, testified in favor of legalization in the hopes it could help her 10-year-old son, Waylon, who’s been put into medically induced comas multiple times because he’s afflicted by seizures.

“This kid standing before you today swallows 47 pills a day … and he still has uncontrollable seizures,” Cordle said.

She said that while involvement in a clinic trial of Epidiolex has substantially reduced the number of seizures Waylon experience, she’d still rather he be seizure free. “I’ve seen several parents take their seizing kids and move across the country, and now these kids are seizure-free and riding bikes, as they should,” she said.

Dr. Robert Hobbs, president-elect of the Academy of Medicine of Cleveland & Northern Ohio, said doctors would embrace the opportunity for more scientific analysis of marijuana and its medical benefits, but his organization can’t support legalization before that occurs. Legalization prior to clinical trials and FDA approval is “putting the cart before the horse,” he said several times.

“The medical community is very eager to either prove or disprove the worth of marijuana,” he said. “Let’s get the answer, because we don’t have the answer right now … does it work, how often does it work, what are the disadvantages of using?”‘

Dr. Jason Jerry, an addiction specialist at the Cleveland Clinic and chair of the addiction and pain committee for the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Association (OPPA), likewise expressed opposition to legalization and urged adherence to the routine FDA process for drug approval. “Marijuana, as a plant, is not a medicine. Several compounds contained in marijuana may have therapeutic potential, and the government should promote research to identify these and to determine optimal dosing and toxicity. For these reasons, the OPPA and the Cleveland Clinic believe that it is not acceptable medical practice to recommend that patients use marijuana,” Jerry said.

However, Mark Welty, a clinical counselor from Zoar, said he sees promise in medical marijuana as an “adjunctive therapy” to help people treat opiate addiction. He led off his testimony by asking task force members to consider how many opiate addicts they know who’ve ended up in the morgue, versus users of marijuana.

Welty said many addicts won’t walk in the door of a treatment center because of the abstinence-based model often used, saying that moderate marijuana use could help alleviate symptoms of opiate detoxification and withdrawal.

The task force also heard from a handful of people involved in various ways with legalization issues in other states.

Adam Cohen, managing director of MJardin, which supports growing operations, said Ohio should consider what it’s objectives are in a potential legalization system — such as whether it wants narrow access for certain acute illnesses or a broader system designed with consideration of generating tax revenue and displacing the black market, for examples — and make key decisions accordingly.

He said the list of medical conditions that would qualify a patient for medical use is perhaps the biggest factor in determining the size and success of a legalization program. He noted that, though marijuana is available for recreational use in the same manner as alcohol in Colorado, about 125,000 people still go to the effort of obtaining medical cards.

Rebecca Myers, a Pittsburgh health care consultant [and CEO of FarmaceuticalRX], said there are vast opportunities to learn from and improve on other states’ systems as Ohio considers legalization. Key industry challenges include how to make dispensaries operate more akin to pharmacies than “head shops,” and ensuring quality and safety in growing practices, particularly in relation to the use of pesticides and fungicides on plants that are intended to be converted into medicines.

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on March 31, 2016.  Copyright 2016 Hannah News Service, Inc.