Ohio’s medical marijuana industry is required to follow stringent rules that prevent it from taking some of the same precautions as pharmacies during the coronavirus outbreak. Some in the industry would like those rules eased.
The list of essential businesses allowed to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic includes medical marijuana dispensaries, which are in the same category as pharmacies because they provide what is considered medicine under Ohio law.
But a raft of regulations govern legal cannabis companies that don’t apply to pharmacies, and medical-marijuana industry officials worry that those restrictions hamper their ability to keep staff members and customers healthy. Marijuana businesses and groups representing patients are asking the state to relax some of those rules.
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“There are certain adjustments to the program that can take place to make (dispensaries) function more like traditional pharmacies,” said Thomas Rosenberger, associate director of the Ohio Medical Cannabis Industry Association.
For example, Ohio grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants that remain open offer curbside pickup, online ordering and delivery.
Strict guidelines prevent dispensaries from following suit. Ohio law, for example, requires a security camera to record all transactions and compels dispensary workers to check a patient’s marijuana card.
“Even if they allowed us to walk out the door (to fill orders outside), there’s still a lot of things the administrative code wants us to complete for fraud reasons and for safety reasons,” said Brian Wingfield, co-owner of the Ohio Cannabis Co. dispensary in Coshocton.
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Most of the requested changes are modest. Industry representatives, for example, are in talks with state officials to loosen a rule that limits patients to a certain quantity of marijuana every 90 days. Pharmacies face no such restriction.
Some medical-marijuana advocates, however, want more comprehensive changes.
With marijuana still illegal under federal law, restrictions maintain the integrity of Ohio’s medical cannabis program, state officials say.
“The Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program’s goal is to have a patient-safe and (patient-) centered program,” Ali Simon, public and policy affairs liaison for the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, said in an email. “This includes having strict guidelines in place to protect patient safety and privacy and dispensary security.”
Some patients said the close proximity to employees and other customers makes them feel unsafe. Anthony Cordle, a medical marijuana cardholder who lives on the Far West Side, said his dispensary is often packed with patients.
“The counters are 2 feet apart,” he said. “You can touch the person next to you. You have to touch all the doorknobs (when you walk inside), and who knows who cleans those.”
Medical experts recommend staying at least 6 feet apart to avoid contracting COVID-19.
Dispensary representatives say they take an abundance of precautions.
Ohio Cannabis Co. employees wipe down all surfaces that employees and customers touch, limit the number of people in the dispensing room, and keep customers and employees at least 6 feet apart, Wingfield said.
“We need to be aware of what we’re doing because we can keep our staff safe so they’re able to keep providing medicine,” he said.
State regulators already have allowed accommodations for the caregivers who are entitled to buy marijuana on a patient’s behalf. Caregivers, for example, now may call in orders to expedite pickup at the dispensary. And officials are considering accommodations to let workers fill patient orders in the parking lot, Simon said.
Industry officials and state regulators also are discussing a relaxation of the 90-day supply limit.
“I don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen, but the 90-supply is talked about as a place where we have the opportunity to help patients in a meaningful way,” Rosenberger said.
Cordle and some marijuana advocates, however, want more far-ranging changes.
Tim Johnson, co-founder of the Ohio Cannabis Chamber of Commerce advocacy group, sent an open letter to legislators and state officials last week calling for online ordering, delivery and curbside pickup.
He praised regulators for allowing doctors to write medical marijuana recommendations through teleconferencing with patients and letting caregivers call in orders.
But “the industry is still kind of operating as it was beforehand. What we are calling for is the state to be inclusive, as they have in every other industry,” Johnson said.
If Ohioans may have alcohol delivered to their homes, Johnson said, the same should be true for marijuana.
Dispensary restrictions are written into Ohio law, and a skeptical Ohio General Assembly that is focused on the coronavirus pandemic is unlikely to approve changes.
Johnson called on the state’s medical and pharmacy boards to work within their authority to approve changes.