Mile High Green Cross is a recreational and medical marijuana dispensary serving the greater Denver area. (Photo by Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

Pharmacists as budtenders? Ohio weighs regulation options

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A legislative proposal to regulate medical marijuana through Ohio’s pharmacy board was scrapped Tuesday over concerns the rare setup nationally would create an undue burden on the state.

Republican Sen. David Burke, a Marysville pharmacist behind the idea, called the arrangement the most responsible way to oversee marijuana as medicine. He said changes introduced in the Senate Government Oversight Committee on Tuesday were needed to strike a workable compromise.

“This bill doesn’t give me everything I want, but it does give the people of Ohio what they need — and that’s the most important thing,” Burke said. The legislation comes as the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature seeks to head off a prospective medical marijuana ballot question this fall.

GOP Sen. Bill Coley, who chairs the committee considering the fast-tracked medical marijuana bill, said the new plan still requires pharmacists at dispensaries but leaves doctors under the medical board and places cultivation and processing under the state Commerce Department. Republican senators planned a caucus Tuesday evening; it wasn’t clear whether the compromise language would have the votes to clear the chamber.

The House plan, approved May 10, created a nine-member Medical Marijuana Control Commission to set rules for cultivating, distributing and licensing cannabis. That’s more in line with what other states have done and more closely mirrors the regulatory setup favored by medical marijuana advocates. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy says only Connecticut and Louisiana regulate medical marijuana through their pharmacy boards. Most states establish control commissions that distance federally licensed doctors and pharmacies from distribution.

The Drug Enforcement Agency licenses doctors and registers pharmacies that prescribe controlled substances. Those authorizations don’t currently allow prescriptions of marijuana because it hasn’t been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration. It is still a Schedule I substance, deemed unsafe and addictive by the FDA. For that reason, medical marijuana bills, including Ohio’s, generally call for physicians to “recommend,” not “prescribe,” medical pot.

Burke said pharmacies, not individual pharmacists, are certified by the DEA, so the requirement retained under Tuesday’s bill revisions for a pharmacist to be placed at every dispensary wouldn’t be risky. He said they’re not in jeopardy of losing a license or being prosecuted for distributing marijuana.

In prepared testimony Tuesday, Ohio Pharmacists Association director Ernest Boyd said his members had been on the fence about supporting pharmacists even working at medical marijuana dispensaries because of the drug’s legal status — let alone the pharmacy board overseeing the whole program. But it’s been decided that if medical marijuana legalization is inevitable, pharmacists have a role in keeping it safe, he said.

Carmen Catizone, executive director of the national pharmacy boards association, said despite the potential value of involving pharmacists in the process, the approach runs risks that many other states have been unwilling to take. He said the Justice Department’s current policy of selective enforcement against legalized marijuana is merely “a gentleman’s agreement” that could evaporate after President Barack Obama leaves office next year.

“The overriding principle for pharmacies and pharmacy boards is that, under federal law, it is still illegal,” he said.