CINCINNATI - Ohio regulators are expected this week to approve the first slate of doctors who will be allowed to recommend medical marijuana in the state.
On Wednesday, Ohio's Medical Board will meet to review applications from doctors across the state who have filed to be certified to recommend the newly legal drug to their patients.
The board has received 50 applications from physicians since it began accepting them in late March.
Locally, eight doctors whose specialties range from family practice, to obstetrics, gastroentology, psychology and more have applied for the certification. As part of their application, physicians are required to take a two-hour state-approved training course from one of three vendors Ohio has tapped to deliver online and in-person classes.
Cincinnati-area doctors with applications pending include:
- Dr. Timothy Thress, an Anderson Township-based physician who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology.
- Dr. Becky McGilligan, a primary care doctor who runs her own practice in Anderson Township.
- Dr. Hal Blatman, who specializes in pain management and founded the Blatman Health and Wellness Center with offices in Sycamore Township.
- Dr. Alison Phelps, medical director at Acadia Healthcare which has operations in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana
- Dr. William Sawyer, a family practitioner in Sharonville.
- Dr. Christopher South, medical director of endoscopy at the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati.
- Dr. Jennifer Lobert, a rheumatologist and founder of Comprehensive Musculoskeletal Care in Kenwood.
- Dr. Marcia Kaplan, a psychiatrist at the Center for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis in Corryville,
Dr. Sawyer, who has run his primary care family practice in Sharonville for more than three decades, said mounting research is proving that medical marijuana "has tremendous benefits when correctly managed.
"Beyond that, the patient physician relationship is extremely important, because we can help them solve problems that frankly they don't want to talk to anyone else about," he said. "I believe every patient should have a trusting relationship with their physician, and doctors need to stay current with medical science so they can answer any question a patient might have."
Will enough doctors get certified?
Under Ohio's laws, patients are only eligible to use medical marijuana if they have one of 21 qualifying conditions and a recommendation from a doctor.
As many as 300,000 Ohioans could qualify for the program, according to estimates from the state and medical marijuana trade groups.
But if too few doctors get certified to recommend, experts say Ohio's entire medical marijuana empire could be in jeopardy as it faces a Sept. 8 deadline to launch.
Dozens of newly formed companies are investing millions of dollars into medical marijuana startups to grow, process and sell the drug.
Late last year, Ohio awarded 24 firms the right to grow the state's first batch of legal medical cannabis. In the coming weeks and months, dozens more business licenses are expected to be awarded to firms that will process the drug into allowable forms and to dispensaries that will sell the drug.
"This is a big issue, because the physicians are the ones with their hands on the spigot," said Dr. Mark Welty, who is a board member for the Ohio Patient Network -- a patient and cannabis advocate nonprofit. "They will control how quickly this program begins to flow."
Many health systems taking a "wait and see" approach to medical pot
In Ohio, a majority of the state's more than 41,000 doctors work for large health systems. Cleveland Clinic, for example, employs more than 3,500 physicians.
In a February WCPO survey of Greater Cincinnati's largest health systems, only the Christ Hospital Health Network said it had plans to recommend that its physicians receive the required training.
"I just think that's the responsible thing to do," said Michael Jennings, chief clinical officer at Christ. "This is first and foremost a patient care discussion. Even if they don’t want to get certified to recommend, they still need to know about the pharmacology because they will undoubtedly be seeing patients who are on one of these products from another provider."
A UC Health spokeswoman told WCPO that it was taking a "wait and see" approach as the health system learns more details about the required training and the new law.
In a statement to WCPO, officials at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center said the "legal and regulatory landscape for medical marijuana...remains complicated. We can better evaluate the use of medical cannabis if that landscape clears."
Mercy Health said it has no plans at this time to ask physicians to get training or become certified because marijuana "remains illegal under federal law and federal government has indicated it will enforce federal laws against the drug in states that have decriminalized its production and sale, including for medical purposes."
TriHealth did not respond.
Dr. Sawyer, whose primary care practice isn't affiliated with a local health system, said he believes many physicians are holding off in pursuing the certification because of the drug's federally illegal status.
"It's a hard task for doctors to stick their heads up above the ground on this because they don't want to be seen as a target," he said. "We just want to do what's right for patients."