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Media access to medical marijuana dispensaries is limited in Ohio. The restrictions are intended to keep those operations secure and protect patient privacy, but the industry is seeking to relax some of them.

Among many other rules, Ohio’s medical marijuana dispensaries need state approval before hosting journalists for site visits and tours.

The State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy, which licenses dispensaries, requires the names of any visitors other than employees and medical marijuana cardholders before they set foot on the property.

Also, dispensaries must submit news releases to state officials for approval.

Industry groups are looking to change those rules, mainly for clarity. Cannabis processors and cultivators, who are overseen by the Ohio Department of Commerce, don’t need to approve visitors ahead of time (although non-employees must register and submit to a security check) and don’t need to run their news releases by state regulators.

Regulators want to protect the patients’ identities, but the state should find a better balance between ensuring patient privacy and allowing more media access, said Thomas Rosenberger, associate director of the Ohio Medical Cannabis Industry Association.

Reporters aren’t the only ones who need permission to visit dispensaries: Industry officials also would like to arrange visits from doctors or politicians without the state’s approval, Rosenberger said.

“Dispensaries are the most public facing part of the program,” he said. “There’s a balance of protecting patient identity while still allowing the press to do their jobs.”

The pharmacy board restricts medical marijuana advertising, making interactions with the media the best way for dispensaries to tell their story, said Alex Thomas, executive director of the Ohio Medical Marijuana License Holder Coalition.

“(Reporters) are such a critical piece in informing the public about what goes on in dispensaries and what these businesses actually look like,” he said.

Dispensaries are, by law, highly secure, said Ali Simon, the pharmacy board’s public and policy affairs liaison. Companies must take a litany of precautions, including installing security cameras that cover every square inch of a dispensary except for the bathroom, and the state wants to make sure that any visitors are logged and tracked.

The restrictions have practical consequences. When a Dispatch reporter had to cancel a planned visit to the Herbology dispensary in Newark, which opens this month, dispensary officials were unable to immediately reschedule the visit because they needed to have the meeting approved by state regulators several days in advance.

Regulators ask only for a few days’ lead time before a member of the media visits a dispensary, and state officials try to be as flexible as possible in approving those visits, Simon said.

“(Dispensaries) have never indicated that we’ve slowed down that process,” she said.

State law lists several communication methods that must be submitted for approval along with ads and marketing materials, including news releases. But a more informal email from a dispensary representative to a reporter doesn’t need to be vetted.

The restriction is intended to ensure that marijuana companies don’t promote their products as recreational or release marketing material that appeals to children, Simon said.

The rules are constantly evolving.

Last year, the pharmacy board proposed changes to advertising rules based in part on industry input. A pair of updates would let dispensary companies put product pictures in ads and allow them to use illuminated signs, which are currently barred under state law.

A public comment period on the proposed changes ended Jan. 10, and Simon said state officials are reading through those comments.

pcooley@dispatch.com

@PatrickACooley

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