Medical marijuana gains momentum in Pa.

Last week, the Pennsylvania State Senate took a major step toward making the Keystone State even greener.

On May 12, Senate Bill 3, which would legalize medical use of cannabis in the state of Pennsylvania, passed the State Senate by a 40-7 vote.

Now, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will consider the bipartisan bill, which State Senators Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) and Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon/Dauphin/York) sponsored. If the House passes it, the bill will land on the desk of Governor Tom Wolf, who will likely sign it into law, according to members of Wolf’s staff.

SB 3 would legalize the use of medical cannabis for patients diagnosed with any of 15 “qualified medical conditions,” including cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and “chronic or intractable pain where other methods of treatment no longer have therapeutic or palliative benefit.” The bill broadly defines “medical cannabis” as not only the cannabis plant itself, but also any oils, ointments, tinctures, liquids, gels, pills or similar substances made from the cannabis plant and intended for medical purposes.

The bill would also create a new regulatory board, the State Board of Medical Cannabis, which will exist under the Department of Health. According to section 301 of the bill, Pennsylvanians will be able to apply to the Board for licenses to grow, process, sell and test marijuana. Anyone found with marijuana and no license will be breaking the law, the bill says.  

Jeffrey Sheridan, Wolf’s press secretary, said he didn’t want to speak for the House, but indicated that Wolf would likely sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

“[We] don’t want to speculate on the actions of the House, but Gov. Wolf is committed to the legalization of marijuana and looks forward to discussion with members in the House from both parties,” Sheridan said.

Now that it has passed the Senate, SB 3 has been referred to the House Health Committee for discussion, a development which dismayed some medical cannabis advocates because Health Committee Chair Matt Baker (R-Tioga/Bradford/Potter) has spoken out against medical cannabis reform.

“We were kind of crushed when [SB 3] went to the Health Committee, because Representative Baker has made it clear he won’t hear anything about medical cannabis,” a member of the audience at a roundtable discussion on medical cannabis with Wolf, Leach, Folmer, and a panel of experts and advocates, said on Monday in Harrisburg.

In the wake of SB 3’s passage, Baker voiced his disapproval.

“I was disappointed that the Senate voted to approve a drug that is illegal by federal definition and law,” Baker said.

But Baker isn’t against all forms of cannabis. While the current bill legalizes all cannabis for medical use, Baker advocates for a stricter model, called the “Epidiolex model.” Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia established the model, which is based on the medication Epidiolex, an epilepsy treatment derived from purified cannabis that contains no THC.

According to a document Baker forwarded to The Pitt News, this model would “[s]et up a statewide expanded access program with a research university and FDA that enables children with epilepsy to obtain Epidiolex.”

“I think I can support this approach as it seems to be the most reasonable I have thus far seen,” Baker said of the model.

According to Leach, although some of SB 3’s definitions are broad, the bill would strictly regulate Pennsylvania’s fledgling medical cannabis industry.

Leach made it clear that SB 3 is not meant to legalize recreational use of marijuana, emphasizing that teenagers and other common recreational marijuana users rarely suffer from most of the qualified medical conditions listed in the bill.

Despite Baker’s clear disapproval, Representative Edward Gainey (D-Allegheny) is optimistic about SB 3’s chances. The Senate passed a similar bill, SB 1182, in a 43-7 vote last September. Once SB 1182 made it to the House, it died because the House did not vote on it before the end of the legislative session.

“I believe last year if it had come up for a vote, we’d have voted it in,” Gainey said at Monday’s roundtable discussion. “Once we get it to the floor, you will see for yourself. We have the votes. If we get it to the floor, it passes.”

If Gainey is correct, Pennsylvania will skip over the Epidiolex model on its direct route to full legalization of medical cannabis.

“We’re going to get [SB 3] to the floor [for a yes-or-no vote], because if we get it to the floor, the promise of a better tomorrow passes,” Gainey said.