By Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The medical marijuana program Ohio’s set to launch later this year has been beset by questions.
Will growing operations be able to ramp up in time to meet initial demand? Will legal and administrative challenges tangle the rollout in red tape? Will enough doctors obtain certificates to serve needy patients?
Still, much progress has been made since Ohio became the 25th state to legalize medical marijuana in 2016 and set Sept. 8 of this year as the launch date.
Mark Hamlin, the Ohio Department of Commerce’s policy adviser on medical marijuana, acknowledges the process has been “bumpy.” But he said he hopes the public recognizes this is not just a short-term project.
“It’s establishing a framework for a long-term industry that’s going to be here for a long time,” he said. “So we want to get it right.”
Getting growers going
Human error, unforeseen complications and legal disputes have marred the process of licensing marijuana cultivators, whose work is essential to getting the program off the ground.
Issues arising have included questions about the constitutionality of a minority-business license allotment, a scorer with a criminal conviction and human error that caused a 25th grower to be allowed when the law called for 24.
Judges recently decided not to halt the whole program over two of those disagreements. Instead, they punted the disputes back to the state. As of Friday, 67 of 185 applicants for cultivator licenses have filed administrative challenges.
The state has doubled its number of hearing officers to try to meet the demand. Hamlin said the state has hired Ernst & Young to monitor ongoing licensing efforts as another strategy for trying to keep the program on track.
Hamlin said 25 growers large and small have received their preliminary licenses and one large operator, Pure Ohio Wellness, of Springfield, has been inspected and two small ones should be inspected next week. Another six operators have requested inspections.
“We are kind of at a critical time right now, so if those cultivators are able to get their certificates of operation, then we’ll be on track,” Hamlin said. “And if they’re not, we’ll know that soon.”
Farm to pharm
Neither testing labs nor dispensaries have yet been chosen, as more logistical and legal issues are ironed out. Once operational, those facilities will represent the pipeline that carries marijuana from growing sites to patients.
Ohio Board of Pharmacy spokesman Cameron McNamee said a special meeting to announce dispensary license winners was canceled recently because the board was awaiting information from background checks and applicants’ compliance with certain minimum criteria.
Up to 57 dispensaries will be licensed at the board’s June meeting out of 376 applications. McNamee said, as with the grower process, release of the final list is expected to prompt protests, both from non-recipients and potentially from communities that would host the medical marijuana stores.
“We are anticipating having to defend our processes,” he said.
He said the board plans a giant town hall for licensed dispensers to try to jump start their set-up ahead of the Sept. 8 deadline.
The state got nine applications for testing labs, two of which were disqualified. Hamlin said those winners should be announced in the next several weeks.
Already, 89 doctors have been cleared by the State Medical Board to recommend medical marijuana once it’s legal. More are expected to be approved at the board’s June meeting.
However, Executive Director A.J. Graber has warned that not all aspects of the state’s medical marijuana program will be fully operational by Sept. 8. Spokeswoman Tessie Pollock said that should not create a problem, because the program is “scaleable” and so can be brought online in phases without inconveniencing patients.
The Pharmacy Board expects its toll-free hotline to go live in June. McNamee said operators at the call center in Bellefontaine are already being trained to answer doctors’ and patients’ questions about the program, the sign-up process and how to use Ohio’s medical marijuana patient registry and portal. That’s scheduled to launch in July.
The boards say giving doctors and patients a venue for asking questions and allowing them to start signing up for care will smooth the rollout process, as well as helping growers, testing labs and dispensers begin to gauge demand.
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