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Medical marijuana bill faces close vote today

By Jessie Balmert | Published: May 26, 2016

COLUMBUS - If senators approve a plan to legalize medical marijuana Wednesday, it will be by a razor-thin margin.

Following late-night caucus meetings, about a dozen Republicans and six Democrats plan to vote "yes" on a plan to legalize medical marijuana in Ohio while prohibiting growing marijuana at home and smoking it. That's more than the 17 votes needed to pass the bill, but it would be close and legislators could change their minds at the last minute.

The plan barely passed committee Wednesday morning, 7-5. Republican senators Kris Jordan, Larry Obhof, Tom Patton, Bob Peterson and Democrat Sen. Michael Skindell opposed the bill.

"All I can do is my best to keep drugs out of the Ohio constitution," Sen. Dave Burke, R-Marysville, told The Enquirer Wednesday morning. He is one of two senators who held town halls across Ohio to listen to residents' concerns about medical marijuana.

If approved and signed by Gov. John Kasich, Ohio would become the 25th state to legalize medical marijuana.

House lawmakers passed the plan by a comparatively wide margin, 71-26, on May 10. Some Democrats, including Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Roselawn, voted against the plan because it would allow employers to fire employees who test positive for medical marijuana and prohibit them from drawing unemployment benefits.

Lawmakers are under pressure from ballot initiative groups promising to place medical marijuana on the November ballot. Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, with support from marijuana legalization giant Marijuana Policy Project, would allow people to grow marijuana and smoke it. The constitutional amendment would allow 15 large marijuana operations and numerous smaller grows across the state. It's not clear how many cultivators would be allowed under lawmaker's plan because a nine-member commission would set that number within 240 days of the law taking effect.

Lawmakers were tinkering with the bill Tuesday and Wednesday morning. On Tuesday, they added a previously removed program that would allow those too poor to pay and veterans to receive medical marijuana at a discount. They also eliminated a controversial requirement that a pharmacist be at every dispensary. They expanded the definition of pain to "severe, chronic or intractable."

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Edna Brown, D-Toledo, attempted to remove a portion that would allow employers to fire employees who use medical marijuana as recommended by their physicians and prohibit them from collecting unemployment. But that was swiftly rejected.

Other last-minute changes include preventing discrimination in housing based on medical marijuana use alone and preventing doctors who have lost their medical license from recommending marijuana.

But will it be enough to convince senators to vote for legalizing medical marijuana?

Sen. Kenny Yuko hopes so. He has worked for more than a decade to legalize medical marijuana for people with epilepsy, cancer or chronic pain. So, count him in the fervent "yes" column.

"This is about helping people. This is about medicine," he said.

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