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Philly420: Limited medical marijuana bill no cause for celebration

The bill, SB3, faces significant opposition in the Pa. House.

The Pennsylvania Senate voted today in favor of SB3, a limited medical cannabis products bill. The final vote was 40-7.

The bill allows for cannabis products derived from plants such as oils, pills or tinctures. These forms are meant to be eaten alone or mixed with food.

It remains unclear if patients would ever be able to access dried plant material, the traditional form of medical marijuana. Smoking it is specifically prohibited, so are prepared edibles.

Eating processed cannabis oils or tinctures can take hours to provide relief while smoking offers an instant effect.

The Senate amended the bill on Monday to include several additional eligible conditions, notably chronic pain and diabetes. They had previously restored HIV/AIDS.

After an outcry from advocates, vaporization was added back into the bill. But use of vaporized products would be extremely limited. Only cancer, seizure and PTSD patients would be allowed to vaporize and only after their physician allows  it. A Medical Cannabis Board will also have to approve any delivery devices.

The bill now moves to the House where the Health and Judiciary Committees just completed a series of  information hearings on the issue across the state. There is more significant opposition in the House. The lower chamber may also chose to consider an even more restrictive version of the bill.

In the long term, SB3 may help a handful of patients. In the short term, it will leave hundreds of thousands of seriously ill residents at risk and without safe access. It is also unclear if patients currently using cannabis bought on the underground market will opt into such a limited and potentially expensive program.

Some key points to the measure:

  1. No home cultivation. Patients will have no ability to grow in a private residence. This means they will have to wait for dispensaries to open. New Jersey took three years to open a single dispensary for patients. Delaware is taking four years and counting.

  2. Limited delivery methods. The Senate heard testimony, in person, from federal medical marijuana patient Irvin Rosenfeld who brought his tin of federally-supplied joints to Harrisburg for a hearing last June. Rosenfeld has smoked more than 200 pounds of marijuana since the 1980s, all approved and grown by federal authorities. While SB3 specifically prohibits the smoking of cannabis, smoking is the most studied form of medical marijuana.

  3. No immediate medical necessity defense. Those who would qualify for the limited cannabis products program will have to wait until they are registered and can obtain cannabis products from a licensed facility. Until that time patients will still be subject to arrest, prosecution, loss of child custody or civil asset forfeiture. Under the best case scenario, if a law is signed this year, it will take about three years to regulate and implement. That means a program may not start until 2019.

  4. The Medical Cannabis Board It will be tasked with setting THC levels for products and conditions.

  5. Surcharges. Although most medication in Pa is not generally taxed, a 6% surcharge was built into SB3 for cannabis products. Cannabis is not covered by health insurance. The surcharge may be a burden for patients and will make even fewer low-income or fixed-income individuals participate in the program.

Police in Pennsylvania arrest nearly 20,000 people annually for possessing marijuana. Thousands more are arrested for cultivating the plant. No one knows how many are breaking the law for medical use.

Recent polling indicates that 88 percent of Pennsylvania residents are in favor of medical marijuana. It is unclear if as many support legislation with such a narrow focus.

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at