Recreational marijuana: What’s the fate of medical marijuana if voters approve adult use?

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program, created by the legislature in 2016, won’t be going anywhere if voters approve the adult-use recreational proposal Nov. 7, its backers say.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, a group of medical marijuana businesses, want the medical program to stay intact and operate alongside the recreational program. If voters approve recreational marijuana, many dispensaries would serve both medical patients and recreational customers, said Tom Haren, a Cleveland attorney with the campaign.

“Like our existing rules for the medical program, you want to be able to provide an uninterrupted supply of medical marijuana,” Haren said. “There would still be a meaningful medical program for patients who need access to medical marijuana, as well as providing an option for consumers who, for whatever reason, can’t participate in the medical program. They could buy the same types of products through the adult-use market.”

The recreational campaign received word last week from Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose that it had submitted enough valid signatures from registered Ohio voters to qualify for the Nov. 7 ballot. Now the recreational campaign is working to educate and promote its ballot initiative ahead of the election.

Some patient advocates worry that medical marijuana will become an afterthought, considering how miniscule it likely will become compared to a recreational program.

Theresa Daniello, a Geauga County patient advocate, said that in most states, the medical program becomes an afterthought once recreational use is legalized. In Ohio, where many patients believe access to the program is a challenge, recreational marijuana could further hurt the medical program, she said.

“My priority is accessibly, affordability and accountability and making sure that we have a safe program for our patients,” she said. “In other states, the patient program has gone to the wayside.”

The main differences between the medical program and the proposed recreational program would be eligibility and costs.

To be eligible for the medical program, Ohioans must have one of at least 26 qualifying conditions, ranging from multiple sclerosis to positive status for HIV, and receive a recommendation for marijuana from a licensed Ohio physician with a certificate to recommend marijuana.

Ohioans in the medical program pay to register in the program and receive patient cards, which cost $50 a year and permits them to purchase at dispensaries. Ohio regulators provide a 50% discount to military veterans and indigent patients who receive disability incomes through Social Security or one of the state’s retirement systems.

If the recreational program passes, customers would have to pay a 10% sales tax on products, in addition to any other existing state and local sales taxes, that medical patients would not be subject to since their regulatory scheme is different, Haren said.

The recreational proposal’s backers didn’t want medical patients to pay the 10% tax because it would be an additional burden. Marijuana for many medical patients is essential to their health care because they haven’t found pharmaceutical drugs that are effective, he said.

“It’s medicine that isn’t covered by insurance,” Haren said. “They’re already paying out of pocket. They’ve got to incur charges to see a doctor to register, get their patient card. We didn’t think that was fair to tax for their medical products.”

In the early days of Michigan’s recreational program in December 2019, recreational customers gathered in long lines outside the state’s dispensaries, buying out product fast. Michigan dispensaries instituted policies in those early days that allowed the state’s registered medical patients to jump to the front of the lines, saying that the priority was to help them continue to obtain their medicine. Dispensaries conserved product to ensure there was enough on hand for medical patients, even if that meant turning away recreational customers or limiting what they could purchase.

Under Ohio’s medical marijuana rules, state regulators require licensed businesses provide an “uninterrupted supply” of product. The definition of uninterrupted supply varies by license holder. For instance, for cultivators, that means either not more than 120 days elapsing between harvests of at least 15 pounds of medical marijuana or maintaining an inventory ready for immediate sale of at least 20 pounds of marijuana for large-scale cultivators and 10 pounds for smaller-scale cultivators.

However, Ohio’s medical marijuana industry says it’s experiencing an oversupply of product – a phenomenon occurring across the country – and so it’s unclear whether dispensaries, if adult-use passes, would need to prioritize medical patients to conserve product.

Protect Ohio Workers and Families, the opposition campaign to the recreational marijuana proposal – made up of children’s health care, law enforcement, prosecutor and other groups – is skeptical about the recreational marijuana proposal specifically because of the supply-and-demand issues the medical industry is experiencing. That is not a good enough reason to legalize recreational marijuana, said Scott Milburn, its spokesman.

The main differences between the medical program and the proposed recreational program would be eligibility and costs.