Photo Caption: Teresa Vaniello, executive director of the Ohio Medical Cannabis Association, speaks during a panel discussion at Baker Center Tuesday on the legalization of medical marijuana.
Representatives from across the state came to Ohio University to discuss the logistics behind the legalization of medical marijuana in Ohio Tuesday evening.
The four-person panel included representatives from the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Association of Ohio, the Ohio Medical Cannabis Association (OMCA) and OU Community Standards (formerly Judiciaries). All agreed that marijuana could be beneficial as medicine, but some of the panelists stressed that additional research is needed before it is legalized for medicinal use.
Advocates of medical marijuana, including the OMCA, are currently gathering signatures for ballot amendments to approve medical marijuana in Ohio. If approved, one or two such amendments may appear on the November general election ballot.
No one on the panel advocated for legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
Teresa Vaniello, executive director of the OMCA, led the discussion by highlighting medical conditions, including diabetes, that could be helped with further research into medicinal marijuana. She said oil from the hemp plant is now being used to heal diabetic ulcers and develop new skin, but that the treatment is being blocked in most states and by the federal government's refusal to study the plant for medicinal purposes.
Chris Harrison, director of OU Community Standards, said OU would "probably not" allow the drug to be administered on campus and researched in laboratories even if it were legalized for medicinal use in Ohio.
"Probably not as long as the federal government prohibits it," he said. "That's a question that would garner some discussion, quite a bit of discussion. And one of the major systems to OU that the students get is that there's that shared governance, where our students play a heavy role in a lot of the discussions that happen on campus. I would hope at the very least there would be discussion on the issue."
Jim Ryan, executive director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Association of Ohio, pointed out that state universities would face funding issues related to the use of medicinal marijuana if they chose to research or prescribe it.
"Ohio University is a state university but it also gets federal dollars. And so there's the impact of … when we pass a state law that is in direct opposition of federal law. So we look at the problems that can create from a funding standpoint," Ryan said.
Vaniello of the OMCA, however, suggested the government is exerting to much pressure in this area. "I feel like, I don't want to say that we're being pushed around, but it sounds like we're being pushed around," she said. "It seems like to me, after everything I've learned, that we're just keeping the studies down for some reason, and I just don't understand why. I don't understand, when it can possibly help so many kids."
OMCA attorney Mark Ramach said the organization receives emails daily from sufferers of multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS who have been hurt by side effects of painkilling drugs that were prescribed to them before they experimented with medical marijuana.
"That's how all the stories end: 'And then I found medical marijuana. And it made me feel better. I could eat, I could sleep, I could breathe.' And to hear this day in and day out from thousands and thousands of people, and to know that the government is not doing anything about it, well then we have to," Ramach said.
Ryan said that citizens have the right to know that the drug they are using has been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. He said he does not know if marijuana should be legalized because there is not enough information to make that decision yet.
"Our position would be that voters and legislators are not qualified to decide what should be medicine; that we do have an established process here in the United States to decide what is medicine," he said.
Harrison of OU said that he personally understands that medicinal marijuana could be beneficial and that he had an uncle with MS who was an advocate and user. He said that as an institution, however, OU does not support legalization of medicinal marijuana.
In response, Vaniello pointed out that in Arizona, the state has legalized the use of medicinal marijuana, but universities have banned it from campus, which she said stifles study and could potentially harm student health.
"So even though it's a medical (marijuana) state, the doctors can't study it because now it's been banned from campuses," she said. "So if you have a burn patient, and they're learning that skin regenerates itself as they put that oil on, if you have a student who is a burn victim, that student wouldn't be able to use that oil on university campus. That is so important that we protect our students when we make more progress in medical marijuana."
Ryan said that the average doctor receives only six hours of training on addiction, and is not necessarily knowledgeable enough about marijuana to decide that it should be utilized medicinally. He stressed that federal systems are in place to ensure proper research, and that research results on medical marijuana have been mixed. But he noted that parts of the poppy plant, which produces opiates, have been used to develop the widely used drugs codeine and morphine.
"We did that after science and study and clinical work," Ryan said. "Is there a possibility that we can go in there and pull some chemicals out of the marijuana plant and turn that into appropriate medicine that uses an appropriate delivery and dosage amount? Sure, we just need to do more research on that to make that happen."
THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE on Drug Abuse has a six-person panel that must unanimously approve the medical usage of the marijuana plant, according to Ramach. In the last panel on the plant, one person was for it and one against it, which stopped its consideration for medical use.
"They block every single study, every time," he declared. "And that is one of our frustrations. If the FDA is saying 'study it,' why is the Drug Enforcement Agency saying no? That's part of our stance for why we need to do it here in our state via a referendum process."
Ramach said the democratic system in the states is in place to override the federal system's inability to decide, and that FDA approval doesn't necessarily guarantee that the drug will be safe.
Ryan, however, stressed the medicine approval system should not be bypassed.
"We don't have as much knowledge and resources in Ohio as the federal government," Ryan said.