Half of the states in the country will now allow their residents to use medical marijuana, after Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich signed legislation this week legalizing the substance for patients with specific medical conditions. Ohio is the 25th state — plus Washington, D.C. — to pass a medical marijuana law.
The Ohio legislature approved HB 523 in May, a bill that the Marijuana Policy Project calls “limited but workable.” The legislation does not allow medical marijuana users to smoke or grow their own marijuana, but does allow patients with certain chronic health conditions — including chronic and severe pain, cancer, and epilepsy — to use the drug in vapor, patch or edible forms.
The bill was fast-tracked to offset a medical marijuana ballot initiative in November, which could possibly have been less restrictive. In response to the bill, marijuana advocacy groups suspended the signature collection campaign for the ballot initiative, saying that despite some shortcomings, the law was a “step forward” and a “moderately good piece of legislation.”
The law will take effect in 90 days, at which time patients will be able to go to nearby states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that already allow for medical marijuana, legally obtain pot, and take it back across state lines. It also sets a broad deadline of two years for Ohio to set up its own state-run or licensed system to cultivate, test, and dispense medical marijuana.
Eighty-four percent of voters in Ohio support medical marijuana, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Last year, voters in the state overwhelmingly voted down a full marijuana legalization measure. Although a majority of voters in the state approve marijuana legalization for recreational use, the law would have created a near-monopoly over pot cultivation, locking in a few wealthy investors and cutting everyone else out. Marijuana is already decriminalized in the state, meaning that the possession or ‘gift’ of a small amount of pot is considered a “minor misdemeanor” not punishable by jail time.
In some states that allow medical marijuana, the drug is also decriminalized, as in Ohio, or fully legal, as in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
Although marijuana legalization remains somewhat controversial politically, Ohio’s new law demonstrates the growing support for loosening marijuana restrictions among both voters and medical professionals. Study after study has shown that marijuana can relieve pain, ease nausea, and promote appetite, and there’s mounting evidence of its effectiveness as a treatment for chronic pain and cancer. In a 2013 New England Journal of Medicine survey, an overwhelming majority of doctors said they would prescribe it as a treatment.
Cannabis, however, remains illegal at the federal level — and is currently classified as a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive of the five designations under the Controlled Substances Act, reserved for drugs that are dangerous substances with no accepted medical value. That means that marijuana is officially more restricted than substances such as cocaine, opium poppy, morphine, and codeine, all of which are highly addictive.
People who are opposed to the use of medical marijuana often cite the lack of large-scale research into its therapeutic effectiveness and side effects as a reason against changing its classification or legalization status. Advocates note that the effect is cyclical: As long as the drug remains Schedule I, its difficult to get funding or approval for the very studies that could help scientists reach a consensus.