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As medical cannabis law gets underway, OSU, Battelle ramp up research efforts

Special to the Legal News

Published: November 15, 2017

As Ohio continues to implement its new medical marijuana law, some central Ohio institutions have launched research projects to tackle the policy and science aspects of the law.

The Ohio State University announced it will establish the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, or DEPC, with a $4.5 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The announcement came a day after local research giant Battelle announced it received a license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to research marijuana at the nonprofit institute's Center for Substance Use Research.

"Most of the marijuana research done in the U.S. is kind of just survey research," said Erica Peters, Battelle's director of marijuana research.

Gov. John Kasich signed the state's medical marijuana law in the summer of 2016. The law went into effect in September.

The law allows people with conditions such as cancer and epilepsy to buy and use marijuana per a doctor's recommendation. It doesn't allow the smoking of marijuana.

With the program expected to be operational by next fall, Ohio has chosen the first 11 cultivators, according to the Associated Press. These are the smaller growers that can cultivate up to 3,000 square feet. A 12th smaller cultivator could be selected later.

Among those selected last week, the top-scoring applicant was Fire Rock Ltd., which applied for locations in Columbus, Akron and Canton.

The state is slated to announce next month an additional dozen growers that can operate facilities up to 25,000 square feet in size.

Ohio received 185 total applications that were evaluated for their business plans, operations, security and finances.

Peters said receiving federal approval to research the drug is a plus since not many receive the license.

"Even for researchers that live in states where recreational marijuana use has been legalized, they still have to abide by federal regulations," she said.

Peters had studied marijuana-related research prior to joining Battelle three years ago. She joined with the intent to start the research institute's own marijuana research and had to adapt to the regulations.

"We had to do some construction on our clinical research facility ... to be in compliance with the drug enforcement administration guidelines," Peters said.

Construction started a year and half ago before Battelle applied for the license nine months ago. It received approval a few weeks ago, Peters said.

"What we're trying to do is more unique," she said.

Battelle wants to do more experimental research in a laboratory setting to understand how marijuana use impacts health.

The company has a "huge head start" as it has more than five decades worth of studying the effects of tobacco product use, Peters said.

Peters will be working with a 10-person research team that will include three other scientists.

The team will soon start two studies to obtain more funding from the National Institute of Health.

One study will examine the relationship between marijuana and tobacco usage while the other focuses on the health impacts from smoking marijuana "blunts."

The studies will have about 10 to 20 people, she said.

"We need to make sure that our research has meaning for what's happening at the state and federal level," she said.

On the policy side, Doug Berman, an Ohio State law professor, will lead DEPC at Ohio State, to develop interdisciplinary research, outreach and public engagement on the societal impacts surrounding legal reforms that prohibit or regulate the use and distribution of traditionally illicit drugs such as marijuana.

"Ohio is an incredible location to look at a range of problems not just as political bellwether but as a social and economic center of all kind of place" in the drug policy arena, Berman said.

At the same time medical marijuana is being implemented in the state, Ohio is dealing with an opioid crisis and therefore there's a need for more data.

Berman said there's no shortage of marijuana advocates who are in search of data to support their positions despite the lack of unbiased research over prior decades.

"Too often its the advocates who are dominating the conversation," he said.

DEPC may look at issues such as whether to allow those convicted of selling marijuana to participate in a now legalized system, why arrest rates for marijuana possession in areas where it's legal go up or down and raid costs of facilities.

Berman wants to obtain the quantitative and qualitative data surrounding how the drug war and drug enforcement policies have affected Americans over the past half-century and wants to have discussions law enforcement and industry players.

The next step for DEPC will be to hire new faculty members for John Glenn College of Public Affairs and College of Social Work.

"We'll be able to hit the ground running in the next academic year," Berman said.

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