COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A Republican lawmaker’s efforts to overhaul Ohio’s medical marijuana program and expand the number of Ohioans eligible for a cannabis prescription was put to the test Wednesday.

The House Government Oversight Committee held its fourth hearing on Senate Bill 261, introduced by Sen. Steve Huffman (R-Tipp City), to streamline the process for businesses vying for a medical marijuana license and permit physicians to prescribe the drug where they “reasonably” believe it will help a patient.

“It makes it more patient-centered, and as a physician, I’ve always been for making it patient-centered, that they can get it for the right conditions and the right way for a good price,” Huffman said.

Under current law, Ohio’s medical marijuana program falls under the purview of the Ohio Board of Pharmacy. Huffman’s bill would transfer most of the authority to the Department of Commerce – a move he said will spur the provision of business licenses at a quicker pace to keep up with the market’s demand.

Huffman said businesses seeking a license are often bounced back and forth between the Ohio Board of Pharmacy and the Department of Commerce, so SB 261 would eliminate the bureaucratic red tape around the process.

“It all moves over to the commerce department to provide one uniform place for businesses to get their answers and develop their business,” he said.

The Board of Pharmacy wouldn’t lose all its power over the program, Huffman said. The Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System (OARRS), an online prescription database, will still fall under the pharmacy board’s authority.

There are 58 licensed dispensaries operating in Ohio, with 137,870 patients holding an active medical marijuana registration, according to the Ohio Board of Pharmacy. Physicians have recommended eligibility to nearly 465,000 patients since the medical marijuana program’s inception in 2016, and product sales have generated $799.3 million.

Ohioans eligible for medical marijuana treatment must first receive a recommendation from a physician and register for a marijuana card with the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program, according to the OMMCP’s website.

By streamlining the process through which dispensaries can obtain a license, Andy Rayburn, CEO of the Cleveland-based marijuana cultivator and processor Buckeye Relief, said SB 261 will lower the price of cannabis for consumers.

“Cultivators and processors don’t determine the price of medicine for patients,” Rayburn said during testimony before the Ohio Senate in November 2021. “Dispensaries determine the price and retail competition is the best and fastest way to reduce the price of medicine.”

SB 261 would also open the door for more Ohioans to be eligible for a medical marijuana prescription, adding those diagnosed with arthritis, migraines, autism spectrum disorder, chronic muscle spasms, hospice care or terminal illness, and opioid use disorder to the list of eligible patients, according to the bill’s text.

Ohio business owner Chris Lane testified against the bill during its hearing Wednesday, offering staunch criticism that commoditizing medical marijuana throughout the state and allowing physicians to use their “sole discretion” to prescribe the drug is not patient-focused.

“I fully support the private relationship that exists between patient and physician,” Lane said. “However, no other medicine can be so arbitrarily prescribed outside of the intended treatment classification.”

While Lane acknowledged the myriad anecdotes of the drug’s benefit, he urged Ohio lawmakers to also recognize the instances in which the Schedule 1 drug has led to “tragedy, trauma, and even possibly the entry to another debilitating condition – addiction and dependence.”

Both the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Association and the Ohio Society of Addiction Medicine submitted written testimonies in opposition to SB 261. They denounced the inclusion of those with autism spectrum disorder and opioid abuse disorder as eligible medical marijuana patients, citing the lack of FDA approval and research surrounding its effects on those groups.

“Instead of authorizing non-FDA approved treatments for opioid use disorder, we recommend that lawmakers pursue policies to expand the usage of proven medications like buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone,” the Ohio Society of Addiction Medicine said in its written testimony.

But Tim Johnson, president and owner of Cannabis Safety First, touted cannabis as the “most studied plant in the world” with a host of medicinal benefits, adding that the original intent of Ohio’s medical marijuana program was to provide “an alternative valued medicinal route, other than big pharma RX meds.”

“When in our history was cannabis ever declared a public health crisis or a public criminal crisis with supportive proof?” Johnson said.

Although Johnson said SB 261 fell short of including criminal justice reform policies and protections for patients, he praised the bill’s efforts to improve the safety and security of the medical marijuana program — like mandating cultivators to package the drug in child-resistant containers with labels indicating the drug’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol contents.

The Ohio Senate passed SB 261 in a 26-5 vote in December, and the bill currently awaits further deliberation in the House Government Oversight Committee.