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Pennsylvania MMJ: Meet the Devil in the Details

Published on April 14, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020

“We weren’t trying to pass a perfect bill," Pennsylvania Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) told Leafly on Wednesday. "We wanted a bill that is, at the very least, workable.”

Folmer, the author of Senate Bill 3, saw years of effort come to fruition this week when his medical marijuana legalization bill finally passed both houses of the Legislature, setting off cheers in the House chamber. The bill now sits on Gov. Tom Wolf's desk. Wolf campaigned hard on marijuana reform and has declared that he will sign the bill in Harrisburg on Sunday. 

As the dust settles in the Capitol, here's a quick and dirty peek under the hood of Pennsylvania's nascent medical cannabis program. 

Who Can Access Medical Marijuana?

The 17 qualifying conditions include HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, Crohn’s- Parkinson’s- and Huntington’s diseases, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease), intractable spinal spasticity, intractable seizure disorders (including epilepsy), inflammatory bowel disease, PTSD, chronic anemia, glaucoma, and chronic severe pain for patients who've exhausted more conventional therapies, such as opioids. 

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Physicians must certify that a patient has an eligible condition, and patients must obtain an ID card issued by the state Department of Health. 

When Can Patients Get Their Medicine? 

"Once the bill is signed, there is an 18-month ramp‐up period," prime sponsor Sen. Daylin Leach (D-King of Prussia) told Leafly. "But patients will not be prosecuted in the meantime. And that's really good news."

What Forms of Cannabis Will Be Allowed?

Unfortunately, the bill doesn’t allow legal possession of smokeable flower. Ditto on edibles. The new law would allow only cannabis in oil, pill, or tincture form. Liquid forms of cannabis are permitted for those who prefer vaping. For the time being, home-cultivation is not allowed. Possession of medical cannabis purchased elsewhere remains forbidden, and there is no reciprocal arrangement for medical cannabis users from other states.  

Cannabis advocates were pleased to see progress, but the celebration has been tempered by the law’s strict limitations. "Pennsylvania seems intent on pretending that no other state has a successful medical cannabis program,” said Patrick Nightingale, who leads NORML's Pittsburgh chapter. “The result is a limited and highly regulated bill that will take considerable time to implement." 

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Who Can Grow? Who Can Sell?

The Department of Health will accept applications for 25 permits issued to growers and processors. Fifty dispensary licenses will be issued. Each license permits (up to) three locations, which means potential for up to 150 dispensaries across the state. For some perspective, neighboring New Jersey has had its medical marijuana law in place for six years. The entire state currently has only five medical cannabis dispensaries. 

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Will There Be Dispensaries in Philadelphia?

Yes. Absolutely. "Probably a dozen or more of them," Leach told Leafly. "For the obvious reason," he added, alluding to Philadelphia's large population. 

What Strange Twists Did Lawmakers Add to the Rules?

At one point last summer, the Senate stripped HIV/AIDS from the list of qualifying conditions, a move later reversed amid howls of protest from all corners. "Medical marijuana without HIV/AIDS is like gay marriage but not for lesbians," one activist said. It was a revealing illustration of how arbitrary, unscientific, and mean-spirited the debate had become. In retrospect, the move to bar AIDS patients represented the low-water mark of the debate. It only got better after that. 

Watch This: Pennsylvania Governor Wants Medical Cannabis Bill to Pass

In a state filled with conservatives, it's ironic the new law includes a 5 percent producer-to-dispenser sales tax on medicine. The same Republicans who go to extreme lengths to shield shale gas or coal from any taxes are comfortable smacking medical cannabis producers with a 5 percent tariff. 


Activists, patients, parents, and politicians all voiced a common concern: The current big‐government approach is especially off‐putting to physicians who may be disinclined to join the program. 

"This is overregulation at its worst," said Lolly Bentch Myers. Her 8‐year‐old daughter, Anna, suffers from mesial temporal sclerosis, which can cause hundreds of seizures in a single day. Bentch Myers leads a group of mothers called Campaign for Compassion, which for months has lobbied to legalize medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.

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Bentch Myers and her colleagues have been a familiar sight around the Capitol this session. And they won’t be going away anytime soon. "We plan to continue our educational efforts in the medical community," Bentch Myers told Leafly. 

"We have no doubt that physicians, when given the opportunity to become educated on [medical cannabis], will feel more comfortable participating in the program," added Christine Brann, who co‐founded Campaign for Compassion. Brann's 5‐year‐old son, Garrett, suffers from Dravet syndrome, another debilitating seizure disorder.  

"If the governor does sign the bill, then it's important to see who's appointed to the advisory board tasked with setting price caps” on medical cannabis, added NORML’s Patrick Nightingale. "I am very worried that no one on that board will have any relevant background to accomplish this. And pegging medicinal prices to the black market is unacceptable."

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Heroes and Villains

The final bill had its flaws, but it’s sort of amazing anything passed at all. Bentch Myers, Brann, and others spent months overcoming a powerful and entrenched opposition. House Speaker Mike Turzai and Rep. Matt Baker, both Republicans, played obstructionist roles throughout the legislative session. House leader Turzai and Baker, who chairs the powerful health committee, both used their positions to try to scuttle the bill. In one bizarre incident, in November, Turzai reportedly broke down in tears during a closed‐door caucus discussion while trying to convince his colleagues to keep medical marijuana out of Pennsylvania.

As for Baker, Bentch Myers told Leafly "I can think of no villain more loathsome.” 

"His efforts should be enshrined in the "GOT IT WRONG" hall of ignominy," added NORML's Nightingale. 

But the fight produced heroes as well, chiefly the Campaign for Compassion’s so‐called Mama Bears, a cadre of mothers whose children suffer various seizure disorders. United in their struggle to find relief for their sick children, the activist mothers swayed votes and cast the movement in a sympathetic light. 

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Good Portents for Pot Politics?

In an era of hyper‐partisanship, medical cannabis reform is something both parties are finding ways to support. Whether you're for Hillary or Trump, Bernie or Cruz, you probably support medical marijuana. But that bipartisan spirit has yet to reach many of our leaders in Congress and statehouses. With the exception of a handful of Republicans like Mike Folmer, most support for drug reform in Pennsylvania still comes from the Democratic side of the aisle. 

"Our (activist) community is a constant source of hope," Christine Brann told Leafly. "We’re never going to 'trust the process,' but we trust each other. We lean on one another in times of sadness. We know this bill is far from perfect, but there is a great deal of determination in our community to continue these efforts for the coming years, ensuring that patients’ needs are at the forefront of this issue."

The governor is expected to sign the bill into law on Sunday, making Pennsylvania the 24th state to legalize cannabis for medical use. 

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Jay Lassiter
Jay Lassiter
Jay has been covering New Jersey politics since 2005, when he founded a political journalism site and became the first credentialed statehouse blogger in America. He currently reports on politics for Leafly and the New York Observer.
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