The Information Sharing Has Begun: First Testimony Offered Before The Medical Marijuana Task Force

By Ted Bibart, Legislative Analyst

The Ohio House of Representatives’ Medical Marijuana Task Force (“Task Force”) reconvened at the state capitol on Thursday, February 11, 2016, and once again members of Benesch were in attendance. The Task Force heard its first testimony regarding the medicinal value of cannabis, and the discussion was lively and well-informed.

The Task Force diligently quarantined the conversation to the medicinal virtues of cannabis, but regulatory considerations were ever-present in both the testimony and lines of inquiry from Task Force committee members. As the medical evidence in favor of the medicinal qualities of cannabis, and the corresponding benefits for Ohio patients in need, went uncontroverted, the Task Force often found itself willingly considering questions beyond the medical risks and rewards of cannabis-based treatments, and into perspectives related to a prospective regulatory scheme.

First, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (“MS Society”) offered testimony, through its representative Holly Pendell, in hopes that the Task Force “will result in meaningful and responsible legislation allowing patients in need of cannabis, access in a safe and responsible manner.” The testimony came as part of the MS Society’s support of legalization of medicinal cannabis at both the state and federal level.  The MS Society has arrived at its position in support of legalized medical cannabis on the strength of numerous studies, “including one published in the American Academy of Neurology in March, 2014, ‘Summary of evidence: Complementary and alternative medicine in multiple sclerosis’” which showed medical cannabis “may lessen patient-reported MS symptoms.”  In fielding questions from the panel, Ms. Pendell made clear the synthetic forms of the chemical compounds in cannabis already approved by the Federal Drug Administration (“FDA”) were not sufficient, and the MS Society sought greater autonomy for patients and doctors in choosing medical cannabis treatment options.

Next, local business owner Andy Joseph of Apeks Supercritical, a manufacturer of botanical oil extraction equipment located in Johnstown, Ohio, presented a wide range of educated testimony on the subject.  With $12 million in revenues, 95% of which is generated by the legal cannabis industries across 20 states, Apeks was named by Columbus Business First magazine as #2 on its list of “Fast 50” companies in the state.  The Task Force allowed Mr. Joseph’s testimony to stray away from the virtues of medicinal cannabis and into the virtues of a robust regulatory scheme that promotes a healthy, stable medical cannabis industry in service of Ohio patients in need.  Topics such as testing, taxation, licensing, and product types were explored at length.  Here, State Representative Dan Ramos (D-Lorain) astutely inquired as to whether, and to what extent, the legislature should define and limit eligible conditions for treatment.  Mr. Joseph advocated for broad physician autonomy, as part of his over-all opinion as to what makes for an effective state regulatory scheme.

Next, Carlis McDerment testified on behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (“LEAP”), a national organization of “former and active police officers, prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement professionals.” Mr. McDerment was born and raised in Columbus, and is a former Fairfield County Deputy Sheriff with 11 years of law enforcement experience.  LEAP speaks out against the failed “war on drugs” in an effort to reduce the harms associated with the illegal market place.  The Task Force sharpened the focus of the discussion away from legalization of all drugs and to the value medical cannabis.  Here, McDerment spoke to his experience as a law enforcement officer and the benefits of “allowing patients to use medical marijuana in place of opiate painkillers,” also highlighting the toll prohibition of medical cannabis takes on the criminal justice system.

Next, Dr. David Ellison, owner and president of the Cincinnati Wellness Center, testified as to his extensive, and self-taught, knowledge of the medicinal qualities of cannabis and the industrial usefulness of hemp. Dr. Ellison lamented the current federal designation of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug (above cocaine – a Schedule 2 drug), a perspective shared openly by Task Force member State Representative, and physician, Dr. Steve Huffman (R-Tipp City).  Dr. Ellison went on to describe how the “risk profile” of medical cannabis is actually lower than that of aspirin.  Rep. Huffman went on to have an extensive dialogue, and line of questioning, related to conceivable medical management practices of medicinal cannabis, similar to the standards of care already in place for prescription drugs such as Vicodin.  The Task Force was invigorated by Dr. Ellison’s testimony with additional questions coming from Dr. Brian Santin, Betty Montgomery, Jimmy Gould, and Linda Hondros.  Rep. Ramos asked a particularly elucidating question of Dr. Ellison to compare the addiction profiles of medical cannabis versus any prescription drug in the opiate classification.  Dr. Ellison resoundingly opined that medical cannabis has a far lower incidence or consequence of addiction than any opiate.

Finally, poignant testimony came from the last three witnesses scheduled to testify. First, attorney and former Air Force serviceman Michael Brice Keller testified to his personal experience using cannabis in treatment of his PTSD symptoms that resulted from his service in combat.  Lastly, Corrine Gasper and Nancy Vincent both spoke on behalf of their loved ones who were killed in traffic accidents by individuals allegedly under the influence of marijuana.  The Task Force was obviously moved by the personal stories of all three, and the fullness of its responsibilities in addressing this question on behalf of all citizens of Ohio.

Benesch will continue to have an extensive presence before the Task Force, with a keen eye toward the development of underlying policy initiatives and concerns. While the current focus of the Task Force seems to be in step with its stated goal of information gathering as to the medicinal virtues of cannabis, the statutory and regulatory considerations are always flowing below the surface and invariably percolate to the top of both the testimony and questions from the Task Force.  Benesch will be there to monitor these trends, with a forward-looking view to legislative solutions and emerging markets.

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