Next week, the PA Senate will take on the question of Pennsylvania’s Medical Cannabis (Marijuana) law with the bill known as SB3 (recently passed by the PA House of Representatives). The bill has a number of positive aspects – for instance, it provides coverage for seventeen medical conditions, gives the Health Department the ability to modify the program (with some limitations), and authorizes a strong research provision allocating money to research the benefits of medical cannabis. There are no strain restrictions, and no cannabinoid restrictions. The Health Department will have the authority to set a cap on the price of medical cannabis. A system of growers, processors, and dispensaries is authorized.
However, there are a number of flaws with the bill as well. Whole plant or flower product is forbidden, subject to the Advisory Board’s first review after two years. Only 25 grower/processor licenses will be allowed, and only 50 for dispensaries (with up to three locations each, for a total of 150 possible dispensaries). Patients are not permitted to grow their own medicine. Application and license fees for running a “Medical Marijuana Organization” are prohibitively high for many small business owners. While the cap on the price of medicine may be helpful, experience and reality of the details of the bill, and doing business in medical marijuana under the climate of Federal prohibition, will ensure that they remain high relative to the black market. There should also be a medical necessity clause that provides relief from criminal prosecution for anyone with a recommendation from their doctor while the regulations are being ironed out and implemented.
What does this mean for patients?
Primarily, it means that even if patients enroll in the program, their medicine will continue to be just as expensive as on the black market. Many will simply continue to get their medicine illegally because it’s more convenient, or cheaper. The Health Department must have its temporary regulations finalized and published within 6 months of SB3 becoming law. This means that registration forms for patients who need the medicine, physicians who want to recommend it, and entrepreneurs who want to start a medical cannabis organization, should be available within that time – assuming they are able to get it done. It will be at minimum however, two years before any medicine is actually sold at a dispensary.
We are likely to see fewer physicians enroll due to the required physician registry which will be established. New Jersey and New York have them, and have seen dismal enrollment compared with other states which do not require it. New Jersey has about 360 doctors registered and New York about 440, representing just 1% of eligible recommenders. Lower physician enrollment means lower patient enrollment, which means dispensaries will have to charge more for their medicine just to stay afloat.
What should we do?
The question now is – should the Senate concur with the House version and pass the bill, or fix some of these shortcomings and send it back to the House for another round? At PhillyNORML, we’ve been wrestling with this question; however, when we think back over the arc of the past 2 [or 4, or 10…] years, it is clear that the House of Representatives still have a number of members bent on defeating any form of medical marijuana. Significant changes to the bill will undoubtedly face stiff challenge and unwanted delay. This means we would likely have to start from scratch again next session with no guarantees that it will be any better, and more importantly, it means that that thousands Pennsylvanians will continue to be without their medicine or be forced to “heal illegally”. As a result of these factors, we’re calling for a concurrence vote by the Senate so the bill can get to the Governor’s desk for signature into law ASAP.
At that point, we can start fixing the many flaws outlined above through amendments to the law and regulatory changes. We urge our legislators to consider the following areas for improvement:
- Many more grower/processors and dispensaries should be allowed – Compared with Colorado, Pennsylvania has 2.39 times the population yet the law limits us to 25 cultivators and 150 dispensaries. As of March 1, 2016 Colorado has 514 Medical Dispensaries, 753 Medical Cultivation Centers and 206 Medical Infused Product Manufacturers. Pennsylvania has allocated a paltry 3.3% of Colorado’s cultivation licenses and 29% of the medical dispensaries. Too few cultivators and dispensaries will limit patient access and drive prices to unaffordable levels.
- The license fees should be accessible to small business owners and entrepreneurs – The current application and licensing structure panders to wealthy investors and large corporations. Unfortunately, this is the by-product of a legislative process dominated by lobbyists who have deep-pocketed clients, and big companies from out of state eager to get in on the ground floor of the PA cannabis market while simultaneously cutting off opportunities for others who are just as qualified. A cultivation application and license fee in Colorado costs at most $7200. In PA, a Grower/Processor application and license will set you back $210,000 (and requires you have $2 Million in capital that can be verified) – plus the cost of actually starting up and running the business. This industry should be created for the people by the people.
- Allow for leaf/flower and edible forms for ingestion – For thousands of years, this plant has been ingested through the smoking of its flowers and infusion into food and drink. Furthermore, whole plant product and flowers can be used by patients to create their own forms of edible ingestion methods. While this is a long accepted practice, the PA legislators chose to forbid this important form of medicine.
- Allow for Medical Necessity Exclusions from current laws – The law will take up to two years to fully implement. In the meantime, patients with a written recommendation from their physician should be immune from existing cannabis possession laws. Making people with serious medical conditions into criminals is wrong and should be prevented.
- We should seek to restore the balance of social justice – African Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana vs Caucasians, even though consumption rates are comparable. The current law has a diversity provision, but no specific targets are established for minority licensees. Furthermore, people with drug convictions are prevent from participating in this new industry. These are the very people who suffered the most from the “war on drugs”. The law should include expungement of previous cannabis-related offenses and allow those who “paid their debt” to society to participate in this emerging industry.
PhillyNORML will continue to fight for changes to the marijuana laws in Pennsylvania that are just, fair and that promote free access of this healing plant to all Pennsylvanians. You can learn more about our ideas for an ideal Medical Marijuana Law here. In the meantime, we call for the Senate to approve the House Bill and send it to Governor so patients can begin to access their medicine legally. The fight for reform is not over, and we look forward to future legislation which will broaden this program and/or end cannabis prohibition for all adults.
We’re including a couple of pics from our lobbying efforts and support during the crucial week of 3/14/2016 – when the House passed SB3 and various amendments related to it.
Please share your thoughts on SB3 and Medical Marijuana in PA in the comments.