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From autism to over-regulation: Lawmakers look to overhaul Ohio's medical marijuana system

The Columbus Dispatch logo The Columbus Dispatch 4/7/2021 Anna Staver, The Columbus Dispatch
a hand holding a cell phone: Stormy Clark shows off her sour gummies from the medical marijuana dispensary Strawberry Fields in Marietta, Ohio on February 25, 2021. Clark drives from Proctorville to the medical marijuana dispensary to get her medicine, a 200+mile roundtrip. © Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch Stormy Clark shows off her sour gummies from the medical marijuana dispensary Strawberry Fields in Marietta, Ohio on February 25, 2021. Clark drives from Proctorville to the medical marijuana dispensary to get her medicine, a 200+mile roundtrip.

Parents, physicians and even a handful of state lawmakers have repeatedly asked Ohio's State Medical Board to add autism to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, and each time it's said no

"I think they have been put in a difficult situation," said Republican Sen. Steve Huffman, an emergency room physician who co-wrote Ohio's medical marijuana law. "We still don’t have the scientific data that I believe the board is looking for, and we can’t have it because of the federal government."

Cannabis research across the country is stalled by the fact that the drug remains a Schedule 1 substance -- meaning the federal government lumps it with heroin and other drugs that have a high risk of dependency and no medical use. Opioids like oxycodone are Schedule 2 which allows for certain medical uses despite their risks for addiction. 

Other countries like Israel have started studying cannabis in adults and children with autism, but the research hasn't been enough to convince Ohio's board. The board has approved just one condition, cachexia or wasting syndrome, out of dozens suggested by patients since .

That's why a bipartisan group of state lawmakers decided to go around the medical board and potentially add autism to the list of conditions eligible for medical cannabis through House Bill 60. 

If it passes, it would be the first time Ohio lawmakers have added a qualifying condition since they created the medical marijuana program in 2016. And it could be the first step towards a larger overhaul of the entire system. 

"I think this request just says that our program is not working, and it’s the first of many necessary steps to fix it," Rep. Juanita Brent, D-Cleveland, said. "We want the people who need medical cannabis to have better access to it."

Building a better system

Patients didn't start buying medical marijuana in Ohio until 2019, and sales that first year lagged well behind projections. About 30% of patients never even made a single purchase from a dispensary. 

Some blamed restrictive program rules while others blamed it on rollout issues stemming from the way Ohio divided oversight for the program among three different agencies (Department of Commerce, Board of Pharmacy and State Medical Board). 

"We made it too cumbersome," Huffman said. 

That's why he and Sen. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, are working on a different bill that would overhaul Ohio's entire medical marijuana system -- including who regulates dispensaries, how growers increase their production and how new conditions get approved. 

"I know for some people it will never go far enough and for other people, it will go too far," Huffman said. "Ultimately though, it’s about the patients."

And they have a lot of complaints.

"It’s still too expensive, not enough conditions, I have to drive 2.5 hours to get the gummies that work for me," Huffman said when asked for some of the more common criticisms. 

More: Ohio could triple the number of medical marijuana dispensaries. But not until next year

Huffman said he and Schuring are still talking with stakeholders and don't plan to introduce actual legislation until August. But Brent said she was encouraged to hear that Republicans -- who control both the Ohio House and Senate -- think the program could be improved. 

"It was passed in a rush to make sure it didn’t get taken to the voters," Brent said. So, it's no surprise to her that Ohio didn't get it completely right the first time. 

But it's going to come down to education. 

She knows some of her colleagues instinctively oppose all things cannabis, and it doesn't help that Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital both petitioned for the rejection of cannabis to treat kids on the spectrum in 2020.

“There is little rigorous evidence that marijuana or its derivatives is of benefit for patients with autism and anxiety," wrote Sarah Kincaid on behalf of the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association. "But there is a substantial association between cannabis use and the onset or worsening of several psychiatric conditions.”

Her co-sponsor, Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, told a committee in March that he doesn't normally impugn the motives of people who oppose legislation, but he is skeptical of those who would benefit from continuing to treat the condition with traditional medications. 

His main argument for passing HB 60 was this: Seventeen states already allow it and the scientific evidence is mounting, so why not let Ohio parents and doctors decide whether medical marijuana would help a child on the spectrum. 

“Passing this bill does not require any patient or parent to ingest medical marijuana, it just gives them a choice in consultation with their doctor to try," Seitz said. "If we are for the right to try, if these are not merely empty rhetorical words, then to quote a recent ex-president ‘What do you have to lose?’” 

About the bill

What it is: House Bill 60

What it would do: Add autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana in Ohio. 

Status: The bill is in the House Health committee awaiting further hearings. 

How to weigh in: The two, main sponsors are Rep. Bill Seitz (614)-466-8258 and Rep. Juanita Brent (614)-466-1408.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: From autism to over-regulation: Lawmakers look to overhaul Ohio's medical marijuana system

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