Looking to head off a more expansive ballot issue, state lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that legalizes medical marijuana for Ohioans suffering from more than a dozen conditions, including cancer and chronic pain, but maintains a ban on home grow and smoking pot.
The bill passed the Senate on a 18-15 vote, which brought applause from supporters in the Senate chambers. The House then voted 67-28 in favor of the Senate changes. The bill now heads to Gov. John Kasich for consideration.
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Senators found a variety of reasons to support it: compassion, political strategy, states rights and more.
State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said he likes the bill because it encourages the federal government to send power to the states. “Uncle Sam should not be controlling everything. And in this bill, we are calling on Uncle Sam to get out of the way and let the states be innovators.”
It positions Ohio to be the 25th state in the country to legalize cannabis for medical use, even though the Federal Drug Administration still classifies it as a controlled substance with no legal use.
Introduced just six weeks ago, House Bill 523 moved swiftly through the Ohio Statehouse for two reasons: many lawmakers would like to head off a medical marijuana ballot issue on the November ballot and they wanted to begin a lengthy summer break this week.
Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, which has financial backing from the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy group, is trying to collect the 306,000 valid voter signatures by July 6 required to make the November ballot. OMM is proposing a constitutional amendment that is less restrictive than the lawmaker-backed medical marijuana plan.
OMM spokesman Aaron Marshall said, “It is a limited and narrow measure that only state bureaucrat could love. Ohio could do so much better than this. We plan to give Ohioans a chance to vote for a comprehensive and broad medical marijuana issue.”
Chad Callender of Dayton, who suffers from chronic pain and nausea, said he prefers the OMM proposal because politicians wouldn’t be able to easily water down or remove the program and because it would allow patients to smoke pot. Callender moved back to Dayton 18 months ago to be closer to family after living in Detroit for four years so he could have access to medical marijuana.
He said eating marijuana is not as effective as smoking it. “You take a couple of tokes and you’re feeling it,” he said. “When you smoke, it’s pretty instantaneous, especially on the muscle relaxant side of it but the biggest relief is from the nausea.”
House Bill 523 calls for regulation to be split between the state Medical Board, Ohio Pharmacy Board and state Department of Commerce. It would also establish a 13-member Medical Marijuana Advisory Board to recommend rules to all three regulatory agencies.
The bill would allow employers to fire workers who use medical marijuana but only for just cause. Fired workers could be denied unemployment benefits only if they violated their workplace drug policies. State Sen. Bill Coley, R-West Chester, said the bill mirrors regulations already in place for workers who may be impaired by other drugs such as prescription opiates.
Local jurisdictions would be allowed to block medical marijuana dispensaries and businesses from moving into their areas.
Wendy Johnson, an advocate for legal medical marijuana, said she opposes the Ohioans for Medical Marijuana plan because it would carve it into the Ohio Constitution and she half-heartedly supports House Bill 523.
“It could have been better. It’s easy to change. The day the governor signs it we can start pecking away at it and making changes. You can’t do that with OMM,” she said.
Tonya Davis, a Dayton resident and long-time advocate for legal pot, said “it’s about time.”
Medical marijuana would alleviate her long-term ailments caused by domestic violence injuries, Davis said.
“People picture drug users, stoners and hippies when think of marijuana,” she said. “I don’t have a criminal record. I don’t deal with addiction. I’m a mother and a good citizen, and medical marijuana would improve my quality of life tremendously.”
Last year, ResponsibleOhio put a proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot that would have legalized marijuana for both medical and recreational use and grant exclusive growing rights to the 10 investor groups bankrolling the campaign. Voters soundly rejected the proposal. But polls showed that between 80- and 90-percent of Ohioans favor legalizing medical marijuana.
“It answers the concern that so many Ohioans have expressed and that is that we should have an option for medical marijuana in this state because the FDA has not done its job as far as making trials and tests in this area available and I believe a vast majority of Ohioans want chemo patients and epilepsy patients to have the ability to attempt this drug,” Coley said. “This does that. But it does it in a safe and controlled environment that should prevent the nightmares that have occurred in other states.”
Staff writer Kara Driscoll contributed to this report.