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Philly420: Pa. House debating on medical marijuana bill in Harrisburg

The debate over more amendments to a proposed medical marijuana bill in Pennsylvania is expected to continue Tuesday on the House floor.

Update 5:45 p.m. - Dozens of amendments were considered to the medical marijuana bill this afternoon. Most were proposed by Rep Matt Baker (R.Tioga) and attempted to gut the bill. He even tried to remove HIV/AIDS form the list of qualifying conditions. All but one of Baker's amendments failed. He managed to pass a provision that medical marijuana patients could not back out of contracts signed while they were using the therapy. 

Many other amendments were debated, with most failing to garner support.

The bill will now be re-printed with all of the passed amendments incorporated. A final vote in the House could come as soon as Wednesday March 16.

Also Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Wolf met with advocates today, including Derek Rosenzweig and Reed Wurtz from PhillyNORML, and families from around Pennsylvania who had gathered in Harrisburg. 

Update 3:30 p.m. - During floor action, both workplace amendments by Reps. Baker and Evankovich were overturned during reconsideration votes. 

The debate over more amendments to a proposed medical marijuana bill in Pennsylvania is expected to continue Tuesday on the House floor.

Last night, the House passed a 45-page amendment sponsored by Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) that is essentially a complete re-write of the bill that already passed the Senate.

Marsico's amendment is a mixed bag for patients who are hoping to access a state-administered program.

The language would allow some whole plant cannabis to be dispensed to patients. The Senate bill only allows for oils, tinctures and pills. But there is still a strict prohibition on smoking. The dried flowers could be used in a vaporizer.

However, Marsico's language ominously includes provisions that require physicians to register with the Department of Heath if they wish to recommend medical cannabis therapy.

New Jersey was the first state to require a doctor registry for medical marijuana and it has been one of the biggest hurdles for patient access.

The NJ Department of Health released their annual report on the program last week. There are just 362 active physicians in the registry. Many patients have reported problems finding a physician. Those who are active often say they are not taking new clients.

The N.J. DOH reported that 6,527 patients have been issued Medicinal Marijuana Program registration cards since 2012. New Jersey envisioned more than 100,000 registered patients when the law was passed in 2010.

The physician registry was part of the N.J. regulations enacted by Gov. Chris Christie's administration, and is not part of language in the law itself.

On Monday night, when the Pennsylvania House finally got around to debating a medical marijuana on the floor, it was after a seven-year wait.

Compassionate use legislation was filed in the state House back in 2009. Rep. Matt Baker (R-Tioga), chairman of the House Health Committee, had blocked a vote on bills for years.

In 2015, House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana) moved the bill out of Baker's committee and into the House Rules Committee, pushing the bill forward.

Last year, it was House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) who was seen as the roadblock in the House. Last week, Turzai's spokesman revealed to Philly420 that he was ready for the debate to be heard.

There were more than 200 amendments proposed to the medical marijuana bill by House members. Those have been refined down to about 30 different proposals that will be heard on the floor this week. During 3 hours of debate last night nine of those got to a vote.

Several amendments that were positive for patients did pass last night.

Rep. Russ Diamond (R. Hersey) successfully removed the 10% cap on THC content in the House language. Rep Marsico also supported removing the cap.

Diamond also successfully passed an amendment adding autism to the list of qualifying conditions.

There were also some negatives for potential patients. Baker took more than an hour at the microphone Monday night to repeat a litany of arguments against the bill.

Baker liberally stretched the truth during his diatribe. He claimed that implementing a program would put state employees at risk for federal prosecution. That is a fanciful fear that has long been unrealized. Federal agencies have raided individual dispensaries in other states. But the federal government has never interfered with a state employee or agency in the process of administering a medical marijuana program in any state in the last 20 years and three presidential administrations.

It almost seemed as if Baker was going to do a full-on filibuster, but he eventually moved on. There was one moment of levity as well. Baker rhetorically asked if his fellow representatives wanted allow medical marijuana smoking for everyone in Pennsylvania, which elicited brief but loud cheers from some of his colleagues.

Baker did not let up. Later in the evening he got an amendment of his own passed that would restrict where medical marijuana patients can work. Rep. Eli Evankovich (R-Murraysville) got a similar amendment passed. Language of those amendments were not immediately available.

Baker and Rep. Steven Metzar (R-Litiz) also attempted amendments that would turn the bill into a research-only program limited to FDA-approved clinical trials. They failed in both attempts.

Some of the most passionate support on the House floor last night came from Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R-Delaware) who pointed out that soldiers suffering from PTSD could benefit from the legislation and access to cannabis could help curb growing opiate overdoses.

"Kids aren't dying from medical marijuana. They're dying from opiate addiction," said Miccarelli. He has served Army combat tours in Iraq.

Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny) stated plainly, "The drug policies we have in place just don't work."

Gainey added that "if a doctor can prescribe opioids" why not medical marijuana?

Rep. Mike Vereb (R-West Norriton) also noted that he had never seen a fatal overdose from marijuana. Vereb served 10 years on the West Conshohocken police department and supports the bill.

The House will not likely get to a final vote on medical marijuana until next week, at the earliest, after all of the amendments are considered.

The Pa Senate passed their version of the medical marijuana bill, SB3, last May.

The Senate will need to agree on any House changes in a concurrence process.

Gov. Tom Wolf has pledged to sign a bill into law if it reaches his desk.

The House session resumed at 2 p.m. Tuesday. A live stream is available here. I'll be live tweeting any debate on further amendments here.