By Ted Bibart, Legislative Analyst
Another marathon evening session of the Ohio House of Representatives’ Medical Marijuana Task Force (“Task Force”) was held on Thursday, March 10, 2016, as the Task Force heard testimony past 11 p.m. Chairman Kirk Schuring (R-Canton) was faced with the daunting task of managing a docket of fifteen witnesses and a packed house in the committee room. Members of Benesch’s Regulated Industries Group (the “RIG”) were there to analyze the witness testimony and Task Force inquiries.
The evening’s expert testimony began with “A Perspective From Maryland” as Commissioner Deborah Miran, one of the fifteen members of the Maryland Medical Marijuana Commission, provided an in-depth discussion of the robust regulatory scheme crafted by the Maryland legislature. The Task Force members were clearly intrigued by the pertinent experience of Commissioner Miran. Having sat on the task force that in 2014 helped to overhaul Maryland’s prior (and largely unsuccessful) attempts to legalize medical cannabis, Commissioner Miran empathized with the enormity of the Task Force’s responsibilities in considering the question. Her expertise, based on more than twenty years in the pharmaceutical industry, made for persuasive testimony. Commissioner Miran took part in drafting and promulgating the regulations that govern medicinal cannabis in Maryland, which rely heavily on the regulatory schemes implemented in Arizona, Nevada, and Rhode Island. Although Maryland’s medicinal market is not yet open to patients, industry experts have praised the comprehensiveness of its regulatory scheme, particularly with regard to product safety measures. Commissioner Miran acknowledged that it had not been an easy road to legislation, and more wrinkles would have to be ironed out. But she encouraged the Task Force to follow Maryland’s lead by not “reinventing the wheel” when crafting Ohio’s regulatory scheme. Maryland identified the most effective and robust elements of the various state approaches and innovated where necessary to serve the contours of Maryland’s market. She thought a similar approach might be warranted for Ohio.
Another national expert, Dr. Malik Burnett, MD, MBA, a preventative medicine physician from Johns Hopkins University who trained in medicine and business administration at Duke University, advised the Task Force on the intersection of medicinal cannabis and public health. His experience collaborating with policymakers and public health officials around the world provided a powerful medical perspective on some of the most complex regulatory questions that the Task Force members hope to answer. State Representative Dan Ramos (D-Lorain), Jimmy Gould (Walnut Group/Responsible Ohio), and Dr. Brian Santin (Ohio State Medical Association) asked probing questions regarding physician autonomy, medical management, and patient access to a broad range of medical cannabis therapeutic options. In all respects, Dr. Burnett advocated that any regulatory scheme must protect the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship, and that patient access to medicinal cannabis should not be overly encumbered by the unnecessary, bureaucratic constraints, such as those that have crippled markets in Illinois and New York. Linda Hondros, representing the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, presented a novel question, not yet posed by the Task Force, regarding information sharing by way of electronic medical records. Dr. Burnett opined as to the possible benefits for patient care, as well as to the challenges such a system would present. Dr. Burnett pointed to Maryland, and Commissioner Miran, as examples for the ability of legislators to come together with outside experts to make state-based decisions that would rightly choose the appropriate approach in response to complicated policy considerations of this type.
Tom Downey, a national expert and prominent regulatory attorney in Denver, Colorado, echoed the sentiments of Commissioner Miran and Dr. Burnett, in highlighting the opportunity Ohio has to create a robust regulatory scheme ahead of industry implementation. Mr. Downey’s extensive experience as a Colorado Regulator, Director, and in drafting the original policies and procedures for Denver’s legalized cannabis licensing structure, were extremely timely as the Task Force considers the best possible approaches to regulate medicinal cannabis. He advocated a system that would not impose overly restrictive barriers to entry, but that would be intensive enough only to support sophisticated operators. Key considerations included a regulatory scheme that was not initially under-funded, and that did not over-tax medicinal cannabis thereby fueling the black market. Mr. Downey addressed the challenges and concerns resulting from the lack of financial institutions willing to serve marijuana related businesses, and encouraged legislators to seek the expertise of outside experts to investigate solutions. Finally, Jimmy Gould asked Mr. Downey to consider the present state of Colorado after full implementation of legalized medicinal cannabis. Mr. Downey assured the Task Force that the fear of the imagined “horror stories” that might result from legalization had proven unfounded in Colorado, instead the economy was booming, tourism was up, and the state budget was being balanced on the strength of $135 million in taxes and fees collected in 2015 alone.
The Task Force also continued to hear touching, anecdotal evidence from patients who had received exemplary benefits of medicinal cannabis therapies. Scarlett Leisure testified with fourteen month-old daughter Savannah in her arms to the incredible impact cannabis oil treatments have had on Savannah’s “catastrophic form of intractable epilepsy” resulting from a deletion mutation of one of her X-chromosomes. Savannah was forced to endure a ketogenic diet and four medications at a time, and was still having at least 5 tonic-clonic seizures a day (all requiring the use of oxygen). With no functioning solution in sight, Scarlett took Savannah to Colorado and started cannabis oil therapy on her own. It was a calculated risk, as there was no medical supervision available in Ohio, but as a result Savannah has only had 8 seizures in the last 5 months (where under the traditional treatments she was receiving, she would have had approximately 750 in that time-span.) In rebuttal to this anecdotal evidence, Dr. Michael Privitera, MD of the University of Cincinnati (also President of the American Epilepsy Society) cautioned that more testing was necessary to assure this type of cannabis therapy was safe and truly effective. In Dr. Privitera’s opinion, legalizing medicinal cannabis therapies without the Food and Drug Administration’s (“FDA”) approval was premature. Dr. Privitera had professed to limit the scope of his testimony to the sphere of epilepsy, but as it veered into other treatment modalities and broader generalizations were made about other fields of medicine, Dr. Santin was there to rein him in, particularly in the area of physician autonomy and patient access. Finally, Jimmy Gould asked Dr. Privitera to reflect on the testimony and experience of Scarlett and Savannah Leisure. The doctor did acknowledge the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis, and clarified that in his opinion more testing should be done.
Lastly, Jöelle Khouzam of Bricker & Eckler testified on behalf of the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association (“OMA”). While Ms. Khouzam presented many open questions her client had regarding employment-related issues, she was unable to address many of the regulatory solutions other states had devised to satisfy the challenges to employers that these questions presented. The Task Force looked to Ms. Khouzam for data substantiating the depth of concern underlying the issues she presented for consideration, and unfortunately none was presented in her testimony. To help clarify her position, Dr. Santin, Chris Stock, State Representative and physician, Dr. Steve Huffman (R-Tipp City), and Rep. Ramos all drew analogies to present employer-related issues with opioid medication in hopes of elucidating the OMA’s stance and the manner in which medicinal cannabis would create different and greater concerns. While the responses failed to demonstrate the uniqueness medicinal cannabis presents employers, it did highlight that there are existing answers in both existing, state regulatory schemes and case law.
 Ted Bibart, and the Benesch team, will continue to provide detailed analysis and comprehensive coverage of Task Force meetings and on-going developments surrounding the issue.