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Patients who want a medical marijuana card will have to pay $50 a year. (FILE)

Ohio's medical marijuana program is still developing, but advocates remain worried about accessibility

Ohio’s medical marijuana program has yet to develop fully, but some patient advocates are concerned the rules and regulations coming out of Columbus will make it difficult for college students and people in less-populated areas to receive treatment.

Patients will have to pay an annual $50 registration fee, according to patient and caregiver rules submitted by the State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy. Veterans and low-income Ohioans can receive a 50 percent reduction in their registration fee.

Leigh Goldie, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Empowering Epilepsy, said between tuition and fees, paying the annual registration fee on top of medication costs can be difficult for college students. That is especially true for students with conditions such as epilepsy, who may not be able to work.

“Where’s the extra cash for a college student to do this?” Goldie said. “The college cost is just a hurdle in itself. Unless they have a family that has really saved for their college education, that only adds to the hurdle.”

Patients in general have trouble finding stable employment because of the nature of the condition, Goldie said, and even if they apply for Social Security disability benefits, the perception is they are still able to work because the seizures only happen every so often.

Goldie added that students who qualify for medical marijuana might need it to maintain their performance in school. With a condition like epilepsy, for example, certain types of seizures and other epilepsy medications can affect the patient’s memory, making it harder to process information and commit it to long-term memory.

Don Keeney, the resident of the Southeast Ohio chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — commonly referred to as NORML — said other aspects of the law, such as the number of dispensaries, could pose challenges to Ohio residents.

Ohio's pharmacy board proposed rules that would allow 40 dispensaries, and the board would be able to issue additional licenses based on population and geographic distribution.

“We’ve got 88 counties, so somebody’s going to have to do without, and probably least populated areas would be the ones,” Keeney said.

A survey of Ohio physicians conducted by the State of Ohio Medical Board suggested 222 of the physicians surveyed indicated they were both likely to recommend medical marijuana and they worked for a health system that would allow them to do so, less than 7.5 percent of total respondents. Four of those responses appear to have come from Athens County. Three responses came from counties surrounding Athens, and 37 came from Franklin County, the county where Columbus is located.

Officials at OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital have not stated whether its doctors will participate in the medical marijuana program. Curtis Passafume, who serves as the vice president for Pharmacy Services at OhioHealth, chairs the program’s advisory committee.

Dr. James Gaskell, the health commissioner at the Athens City‑County Health Department, said his department would likely not be involved in Ohio’s medical marijuana program in any way, but he would have to see what the state law looks like and how it will be implemented.

Keeney said people should be allowed to grow their own plants and smoke them, which Ohio’s medical marijuana law doesn’t allow. Past ballot initiatives, however, have pushed for allowing people to home-grow.

“They always say this is a young people’s item,” Keeney said. “No, it’s everybody’s item. I’ve signed people on petitions from 80 to 18 and all in between.”

Several groups have put forth ballot initiatives seeking to legalize marijuana in the state in past years, a process which requires gathering signatures and submitting the petition to the Ohio Attorney General for approval.

The Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project dropped its ballot initiative effort last year after Ohio lawmakers passed the bill legalizing medical marijuana. Keeney, who has been involved in various initiatives, said he was working with them at that time.

“I have very little faith in elected officials,” Keeney said. “That’s why I push citizens' ballot initiatives.”

Goldie said she is concerned about the “duty to report” provision of the law, which would require patients to notify the state’s board of pharmacy of any arrests or charges. People with epilepsy can often be arrested because of how people perceive their behavior during seizures, which could prevent them from receiving medical marijuana, she added.

“People with epilepsy are very often arrested and charged with crimes, such as drunk and disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, unlawful entry and even assault on a police officer while they’re having a seizure,” Goldie said.


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