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Celebration Sunday in Pennsylvania: With Stroke of a Pen, Governor Creates 24th MMJ State

HARRISBURG — You can usually measure how much a governor cares about a bill they're set to ratify by the size of the signing ceremony. For Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, putting his signature on his state's recently-passed medical marijuana bill was a big deal. You could tell by the overflow crowd and the tenor of the ceremony just how much this meant to a lot of people, including the governor. 

That’s been a theme all week. Just hours after the Pennsylvania medical cannabis bill passed the General Assembly on Wednesday, the governor's communications team put out a "what you need to know about medical marijuana in Pennsylvania" explainer to address FAQs about the program. 

By comparison, neighboring New Jersey didn't release details about its medical cannabis program until several years after the bill was signed into law. That's the difference between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — “not a fan" of medical marijuana — and Wolf, who campaigned for election on marijuana reform.

Shortly before Wolf signed the bill, Leafly caught up with some of the principal figures behind the historic event. Sen. Daylin Leach first introduced a medical cannabis bill in Harrisburg back in 2009. For years, he fought a hostile Republican majority in the Pennsylvania House.

"I'm still a bit numb. It hasn't fully set in," Leach told Leafly a few minutes before Wolf signed the bill into law. "But when I push my mind to think about individuals who will be helped, I've got to admit it feels pretty good."

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Leach took a lot of flack from activists in the state (myself included) for Pennsylvania's overly restrictive program. He's under no illusion that yesterday marked the endgame. 

"Incremental progress is not a bad thing," he said, "because politics, as has often been said, is the art of the possible."

Lolly Bentch Myers, an activist whose daughter suffers from severe seizures, was also upbeat at the ceremony. "I am feeling really excited, but also slightly overwhelmed," she told Leafly. "It's been a whirlwind of emotions and activity since the vote. I'm glad to be in the moment and enjoy the victory."

With the new law, drug reform activists feel they won a battle but not the war. Much work remains. 

"We're not going away," Bentch Myers said. 

Leafly spoke with the bill's chief sponsor, Republican Sen. Mike Folmer seconds before the governor appeared.

"Without a Republican co-sponsor, and without the Senate GOP leadership, this bill would never have seen the light of day," he said. 

Despite Folmer's leadership, the roadblocks to yesterday's victory all came from Folmer's Republican party, including House leadership and the former governor. And that's too bad, some present for the ceremony said.

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"Republicans suffer too," said Julie Michael, a conservative Republican whose young daughter suffers from severe seizures.

An ovation broke out when the governor arrived. He took a moment to soak in a sustained round of applause from the crowd.

“Today we are healers,” Wolf said before signing the bill. “And we walk out of this building into a whole new world. Here's to our future together!"

With the stoke of a pen it was done.

"The hardest thing is to be patient and learn," Republican Rep. Mike Vereb, a former law enforcement officer, told the crowd. "My only observation about marijuana all along was that it was a narcotic. But you can transition if you're willing to listen to facts. This was one of the hardest transitions of policy of my career," he said.

“Now let’s turn our attention to the real killer: opiate addiction!"

Hearing an ex-cop evolve and connect the dots in such a public way brought the day to an emotional conclusion. And then cupcakes appeared to nourish the convivial crowd. 

Amid the selfies and the hugs and the happy tears was a feeling of resolve that, despise the day's progress, much work remains on the long road to ending cannabis prohibition. 

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