Pennsylvania is set to become the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana

Capitolwire: Medical marijuana bill sent to governor’s desk.

By Kevin Zwick Staff Reporter Capitolwire

HARRISBURG (April 13) – Pennsylvania is set to become the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana under a law sent to the governor, capping off a herculean legislative effort and years of emotionally charged debate.

The House, on a 149-46 vote, gave the final legislative approval needed on Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, the champion of the medical marijuana legalization effort. Gov. Tom Wolf said the legislation is an example of good, bipartisan public policy. He plans to sign the measure into law Sunday at a Capitol bill signing ceremony.

The state-regulated system of growers, processors and dispensaries won’t be fully functioning for at least 18 months, after an extensive regulatory process, said Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, a co-sponsor of the legislation.

Folmer and Leach credited grassroots supporters – mothers of children with conditions, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and cancer patients – for putting a face to the issue.

“This is about them – the patients,” Folmer said, choking up, during a press conference. Leach also credited Wolf’s openness to medical marijuana for putting more heft behind the legislative push.

“That made everything we did real, that made everything we were fighting for and every effort we made, count,” Leach said.

On the floor, House lawmakers who opposed the legislation voiced concerns over legal conflicts and the proliferation of the drug for medicinal purposes without extensive research.

“The approval of a drug that could be given to children and those dealing with a number of any other ailments is an awesome responsibility to place on lawmakers,” Health Committee Chairman Matt Baker, R-Tioga, an outspoken opponent of the legislation. “And it’s not one that can or should be based solely on emotion or anecdotal evidence.”

Baker cautioned lawmakers about moving ahead with legalizing marijuana for medical use before the federal Food and Drug Administration changes its position on the drug. Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug, the strictest classification, along with LSD and heroin.

“There is a substantial amount of misleading information causing many to believe marijuana is harmless and is a panacea or miracle drug for a plethora of medical diseases when the substantiated medical research that has been conducted up to this point simply does not support these claims,” Baker said.

Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, a supporter of the bill, responded “the federal government’s been dragging their feet and our duty as a state in a federal system is to drag the federal government along with us into the future. The FDA is dragging its feet and it’s time we move forward in Pennsylvania.”

The Pennsylvania Medical Society, which opposed the legislation, said it was encouraged that the legislation contains provisions that “recognize the benefit and need for additional clinical research.”

“In light of the passage of this legislation, it is our hope that marijuana’s status as a federal Schedule I controlled substance is reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines, and alternate delivery methods,” the statement says. “While PAMED continues to have serious concerns about the efficacy of medical cannabis across a wide spectrum of disease states, it is our sincere hope that patients, especially children and their caring parents, experience positive clinical outcomes.”

The legislation, which creates the Medical Marijuana Act, establishes a program within the Department of Health that oversees a network of growers, processors and dispensaries of medical marijuana for patients with eligible medical conditions.

Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, a medical marijuana industry group, predicts 200,000 Pennsylvanians could be eligible for medical marijuana.

Applicable serious medical conditions include: cancer; HIV/AIDS; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); Parkinson’s disease; multiple sclerosis; damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indicated of intractable spasticity; epilepsy; inflammatory bowel disease (IBS); neuropathies; Huntington’s disease; Crohn’s disease; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); intractable seizures; glaucoma; and severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe or intractable pain in which conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or ineffective, autism; and sickle cell anemia.

The legislation creates three types of medical marijuana organizations: growers, processors or dispensaries. A grower/processor or a dispensary can’t be located within 1,000 feet of a school or a day care center, unless a waiver is granted from the Health Department.

The Health and Revenue departments would have some power to control prices. A 5-percent tax would be imposed on the gross receipts from the sale of medical marijuana by a grower/processor to a dispensary, with proceeds deposited in the Medical Marijuana Program Fund. A majority of the revenue would be used by the Health Department to administer the program, while the rest would be used to waive fees for identification cards for patients/caregivers, for drug abuse prevention, counseling and treatment under the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, research, and local police departments.

However, before patients can receive medical marijuana from the dispensaries, a 15-member advisory board, comprised of seven permanent members and eight appointed by legislative leaders in the House and Senate and the governor, will make recommendations to the Health Department, which will then promulgate the regulations.

Once the regulations are complete and the system is up and running, patients or their caregivers could receive a certification from a physician to obtain marijuana in the form of oils, topical applications, pill, liquid or a medically-appropriate form for nebulization or vaporization. Leaf form is prohibited.

In the meantime, Leach said the legislation contains a “safe haven” provision that allows patients or caregivers to legally possess marijuana in a form that would be legal under SB3 if it were purchased in a jurisdiction where it is legal.

“If they are arrested or cited by police for possession and they can prove they obtained it legally in another jurisdiction in a form that would be legal under our bill, then that would be a defense against prosecution,” said Zach Hoover, Leach’s chief of staff.

The governor’s signature on Sunday will end years of ups and downs for supporters of the legislation.

Lolly Bentch, a co-founder of Campaign for Compassionate Use, whose 8-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Mesial Temporal Sclerosis, a condition which causes intractable epilepsy, dabbed tears from her eyes earlier Wednesday as she talked about how her high hopes were deflated as the legislation moved and then stalled in the Legislature. But after a day of uncertainty, she celebrated the bill’s passage with other supporters.

“I’m just so happy that more of these families can potentially experience something miraculous in their children’s lives, and in the adult patients’ lives as well,” Bentch said, hailing Folmer as “a hero” and praising legislators for “not making a decision based in fear” but on the needs of Pennsylvanians.

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