OU: Yes on pot research; no on testing

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Even though Ohio University at its Edison Biotechnology Institute (EBI) has, up until recently, been researching cannabis to discover new therapeutic benefits, the university is declining to test cannabis for the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program.

“Although we are unable to provide specifics regarding the university’s decision, we can share that no proposals for testing medical marijuana for the state have been brought to the university, and we have no plans to apply for a testing lab license,” said university media relations manager Dan Pittman in a recent email to The Athens NEWS.

Like OU, Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati are researching cannabis for medicinal uses, to help epileptic children and adults with cancer, for example. 

However, there’s an important semantical distinction between “research” and “testing” in this context.

These universities are declining to test the medicine for the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program, which some estimate may someday help several hundred thousand patients. 

State law says medical marijuana, like other agricultural products, has to be tested for quality and levels of pesticide, for example, before being sold to the public. And when Ohio legalized medical marijuana in 2016, state lawmakers mandated they would only allow public universities to test the medicine during the program’s first year. 

The state program will begin commercial sales of medical marijuana at dispensaries this coming fall.

Yet, cannabis research at OU has been approved by the federal government, which still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the same classification as heroin and cocaine.

State of Ohio medical marijuana activists say the reasons these universities are not establishing testing labs is they fear raids by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, the potential loss of federal funding, and how testing medical marijuana for commercial sale could hurt a university’s image.

Nevertheless, activists are shaking their heads in disgust and disbelief. It’s time Ohio arises out of the Stone Age and get with the program, they say. 

“What is a university’s mission?” asked Rob Ryan, executive director for the medical marijuana advocacy group Ohio Patients Network based in Cincinnati. “The university’s mission is to understand things, the universe, science, biology, and what better way than this, to get in on the forefront of this new and emerging biotechnology?”

When he sees public institutions shy away from furthering medical marijuana. Ryan applies the acronym “FEAR”: False Evidence of Appearing Real.

“There are numerous states that have yet to suffer one iota of federal funding dropped because they have a medical marijuana program,” he said.

The Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program will be up and running by Sept. 8 of this year, as was planned, this according to the Ohio Department of Commerce, and the Pharmacy and Medical boards, the three state agencies overseeing the program.

The program may have glitches at first, according to state regulators, but patients dealing with 21 conditions, including cancer, PTSD, Crohn’s disease, AIDS and Parkinson’s disease, will have access to quality tested medical marijuana on this day.

But in 2017, when the program began seeking applications from state universities for testing, nearly all said, “Sorry, we’re not interested.” Medical marijuana activists such as Ryan feared the program could be delayed up to a year.

Seeing Ohio’s dilemma, a medical marijuana testing expert from California, who was born and raised in Ohio, decided it was time to come home and offer his expertise. Dr. Jonathan Cachat, 32, president of Conscious Cannabis Ventures Research, moved back to Ohio and began pitching to universities and colleges the benefits of testing. 

He said he never pitched to OU, but he knocked on the doors of 12 other universities and colleges. All rebuffed him.

“I heard a whole slew of made-up excuses,” he says. “Some thought cannabis was deadly and fatal, but many were afraid their college name and cannabis in the same headline would negatively affect their image or enrollment stats, which by the way, is the direct opposite.”  

Finally, Nelsonville’s Hocking College said “yes.” The two-year community college is awaiting the state’s decision to award an operating license after submitting an application earlier this year. Central State University, a historically black institution in Wilberforce, Ohio, was the second state college to apply, and Cachat gives both a 95 percent chance for approval. 

If successful, he said Hocking probably will invest $3 million initially for a building, testing equipment and the employees necessary to get the operation up and running. 

While Cachat was knocking on the doors of university presidents, the state decided to amend the law and allow private labs to also apply for an application to test during the first year of the application.

Nevertheless, Cachat, who witnessed the Wild West days of California’s medical marijuana program, says a professional and ethical testing program is a key element in a medical-marijuana supply chain where every step must be completed in-state. 

A supply chain starts with the grower, then a testing lab, and, in some cases, off to a processor (who makes brownies, gummy bears or vape products, etc.) and finally to a dispensary.

“On the West Coast when there were growers, processors and labs, all coming up together in an unregulated market, it led to a race to the bottom where growers wanted the fastest turnaround at the lowest cost,” said Cachat. “There were some guys in Oregon, for example, that put a printed-out HP clip-art sign above their garage that basically said ‘Testing Lab’ and people would drop off samples. These guys would smoke it and just write down results. It’s a phenomenon called ‘lab shopping’.” 

Stricter regulations eventually were incorporated. California’s medical marijuana law has led to a billion-dollar industry that’s poured millions from fees and taxes into state coffers.

Cachat predicts that the medical marijuana industry potentially will thrive in southeast Ohio, and believes the region should position itself for this future.

If all goes as planned, a need will arise for skilled and ethical professionals, Cachat said.

Hocking College has submitted a proposal to the Ohio Department of Education for three new majors in lab sciences. One of these two-year associates’ degrees, cannabis lab technician, he said, would be the first accredited degree of its kind in the nation of which he’s aware.

“We are not motivated solely by profit (from testing),” he said. “The idea we can have a new major in this industry at Hocking College, and the draw and appeal it will have on incoming students, is a benefit for the university.”

A paradox facing medical marijuana is the federal government’s Schedule 1 posture that threatens DEA raids and lost funding, pitted against a state government’s belief it can significantly reduce, for example, the number of seizures suffered by epileptic children.

Why research medical marijuana but at the same time oppose testing medical marijuana? 

Cachat noted that no state university nationwide has ever been punished in any way for testing medical marijuana for commercial sales.

By: John Lasker, The Athens News

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