Teresa Woodward of Miamisburg has stage four cancer. She has yet to start the treatment her doctor recommends because of feared side-effects, and she worries Ohio’s medical marijuana program won’t be launched in time to help her.
“I’m not here to get high,” said Woodward, whose breast cancer has spread to her lungs and bones. “I’m here to help myself get through this journey.”
As lawsuits and controversy threaten to delay the rollout of Ohio’s medical marijuana program, patients like Woodward can only wait — and suffer.
“It might be one more day of paper-pushing for the suits. It might be one more week of policy-making behind a desk. It might be just one more month for the bureaucratic machine,” said Ian Schwartz, a U.S. Air Force veteran who is a leader of a Dayton-based veterans group advocating access to medical marijuana. “But one more day, one more week, one more month is a lifetime for someone with PTSD, a lifetime for someone with epilepsy, a lifetime with someone with chronic pain or with cancer.”
State law mandates that the numerous pieces of Ohio medical marijuana program — growers, processors, dispensaries — all be in place by Sept. 8. The next milestone will be Wednesday, when the Ohio Medical Board will license the first group of physicians eligible to recommend that patients get cannabis.
Companies have broken ground on growing facilities in Yellow Springs, Mad River Twp. and elsewhere. Ohio Department of Commerce officials expect within weeks to hear from the first cultivators requesting inspections after finishing construction. Cultivators that pass their inspections will receive a certificate of operation allowing them to start growing the state’s first cannabis crop.
Ohio’s medical marijuana program has had its share of hiccups. The state is facing at least three lawsuits challenging the process that awarded these licenses, with some plaintiffs seeking an injunction preventing the state commerce department from issuing certificates to start growing. It takes months to grow a plant, so any delay could impact whether there’s any product available by September.
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost is also continuing his office’s review of how cultivator licenses were issued after finding a “critical flaw” in the process. Ohio Department of Commerce Director Jacqueline Williams in February deferred to Yost on whether the state should “pause” any part of the process during this review.
Auditor’s office spokeswoman Beth Gianforcaro last week said the office doesn’t have a timeline on when the review will be done. But, she said: “The audit team is working with all due urgency as the auditor’s goal is to not hinder the state’s ability to meet its deadline.”
‘This is a medical program’
As lawmakers and litigants debate how companies should be licensed and regulated, Schwartz said he is hearing from many people eagerly waiting for legal access to the medicine — not just veterans with service-related injuries like PTSD, he said, but also elderly people and parents of children with epilepsy.
“This is a medical program, and these are patients we are trying to serve,” said Schwartz, secretary of the Dayton-based nonprofit Veterans Ending the Stigma.
Schwartz enlisted in the Air Force in 2007 and served in the military police until 2011, when back injuries, anxiety and depression led him to get a medical retirement. The treatment he received — including opioids and anti-depressants — debilitated him physically and mentally, making it so he couldn’t drive or even get out of bed some days.
“I wasn’t even useful,” he said. “I slept all day in a dark apartment.”
Schwartz, a student at the University of Cincinnati, said he got involved with the nonprofit to raise awareness for how marijuana can help people like him.
Veterans, he said, face unique challenges to accessing medical marijuana because many get their health care through Veterans Affairs or military retiree health care, and the federal government has no plans to recognize cannabis as a medicine.
He finds that ironic because military and VA doctors freely prescribe addictive painkillers.
This week could be an important step for Ohioans like Schwartz. After the State of Ohio Medical Board approves the first doctors to recommend medical pot, patients can start looking for an approved physician.
The medical board has received applicants from 42 qualifying doctors, including some from Centerville, Springboro and Springfield.
Any licensed physician in good standing with the medical board can attend a two-hour training to become certified to recommend marijuana to patients. But it’s unclear how many will do so,as many doctors have expressed concern about the lack of research into the safety and effectiveness of the drug.
A patient has to have one of the 21 qualifying conditions and get a doctor’s recommendation to obtain medical marijuana. Those who fall under that category will eventually be able to go online and pay a fee to register as a medical marijuana patient. The online portal, being designed by the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, is expected to be up sometime this summer.
Once Ohio’s program is launched, registered patients will be able to print out their marijuana card and take it to a dispensary, which will have access to the online registry confirming the patient is registered and has a doctor’s recommendation. The Board of Pharmacy hopes to license dispensaries this spring.
Just like with cultivators, though, appeals and lawsuits will likely follow the dispensary licenses, potentially causing delays.
‘Shrouded in controversy’
Thomas Rosenberger, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association of Ohio, said other states have been able to work through legal challenges while allowing their programs to launch.
“Ohio patients have waited long enough to access medical marijuana, and it should be the priority of all stakeholders to ensure Ohio has a functional medical marijuana program on September 8th,” he said.
State Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Twp., has sponsored legislation requiring a full audit of the program over concerns about how cultivator licenses were scored. He said in an interview last week that the state should devise a new, better scoring system. To prevent delays, he said they should give growing licenses to not only the two-dozen that received them, but to every company that scores at least as well as those 24 under the new system.
“The whole thing is shrouded in controversy right now and this clears everything up and makes it clear that the final decisions are proper, and no one put their thumb on the scale,” he said.
For their part, officials from the pharmacy board, medical board and commerce department – the three agencies responsible for the program – all say they are committed to meeting the Sept. 8 deadline.
“I know that there are folks out there who are interested, and just like I tell them, we are still committed to that Sept. 8 deadline and we are working every single day to get there,” pharmacy board spokesman Grant Miller said.
‘There’s got to be some answers’
Teresa Woodward wonders if she can wait that long.
A 1972 graduate of West Carrollton High School, Woodward and her husband are in the process of moving from Altoona, Pa., to Miamisburg to be closer to her family while she battles her spreading cancer. She has tried hormone therapy and an oral chemotherapy, and has fought to live as natural and healthy a life as possible.
Her doctor prescribed a stronger oral chemotherapy that she was supposed to begin taking this week. But after reading about the agonizing side effects — sores on her mouth and feet, stomach pain, loss of appetite and severe nausea and vomiting, muscle pain and more — she wishes there was an alternative.
“I’m at the point where I’m so sick of thinking of how sick I’m going to be,” she said. “I’m hesitating. I don’t know if I can do that. And unless I have medical marijuana, I don’t think I could. I don’t know that I could do it.”
She’s been moved by the testimonials she’s read from patients who took the same treatment and eased their symptoms with cannabis oil and pills.
Those patients, however, all were in states with functioning medical marijuana programs, and Ohio isn’t there yet.
“There’s got to be some answers for people like myself, who are suffering,” said Woodward. “And why should they not be able to have access to something that can be helpful and healing to the body as opposed to having to face this — knowing all the side effects — having to face this without any help?”
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