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Philly420: Pa. medical marijuana becomes political circus

New bill introduced today joins two others already languishing in Harrisburg.

Legislators in Harrisburg are making strange moves on medical marijuana. Since 2009, a number of active bills have languished in the General Assembly. Suddenly, the state reps have a match lit between their toes on the issue. But that has sent them running, full speed in the wrong direction.

The latest actions on medical marijuana have also revealed a serious three-way split in the state's normally-unified Republican party.

Stay with me for the following play-by-play because it involves some deep politics.

Earlier this year, the Pa. Senate passed a limited medical marijuana bill 40-to-7. The bill, SB3, doesn't propose full access like Maine, Michigan or other states. Instead, it allows a limited number of cannabis products - oils, tinctures and topical creams - for a short list of conditions. The bill prohibits smoking it and growing it at home. Vaporization of oils would be permitted only for three qualifying conditions.

Rep. Matt Baker (R-Tioga) was holding SB3 hostage in the House Health Committee. Advocates, parents, military veterans, medical professionals and even television host Montel Williams called out Baker to move the bill forward. But the legislator did not budge. Baker has always been an opponent of cannabis therapy, citing cherry-picked studies and federal law. As chairman, he promised he would not allow the committee to vote on the bill.

Recently, Baker started to catch significant heat from his colleagues, including many within his own party.

Last week, Rep. Nick Micarelli (R-Delaware) launched a rarely employed process called a discharge petition. It requires 25 fellow representatives to sign on and would have wrenched SB3 out of Baker's committee. The discharge could have forced the medical marijuana bill directly to the House floor for a vote.

Over 40 House reps signed on and the petition continued to pick up steam during the last week's floor session.

Just as it was going to be finalized, Baker shifted his position. The House Health Committee called a special meeting. The committee unanimously voted to transfer SB3 to the House Rules Committee. This maneuver kept SB3 from going to the House floor where it likely had enough votes to pass.

The Rules Committee majority chair is Dave Reed (R-Indiana). Reed, the House Majority Leader, has spent most of his adult life in Harrisburg. He was first elected to his seat when he was 24-years-old. Now 37, his views on medical marijuana are in line with a Pew Research poll from earlier this year showing that most young Republicans are in favor of legalizing medical marijuana.

Mike Turzai, a hardcore politician and the House Speaker, is also on the Rules Committee. Opposed to medical cannabis, Turzai has received more than $22,000 in campaign contributions from the Pennsylvania Medical Society, one of the most vocal groups against a state-level medical marijuana program.

Also sitting on the Rules Committee is none other than Rep. Matt Baker.

Meanwhile, yet another group of Republicans have decided to get into the game during the 7th inning.

Reps. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) with Mike Regan (R- York) and Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) on Wednesday filed a separate cannabis bill. It proposes a completely different plan.

Marsico is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Earlier this year the Health and Judiciary Committee held three joint-information gathering hearings in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh on medical cannabis. Marsico became visibly frustrated with Baker at the hearing in Philly.

Regan, a former U.S. Marshall, seemed to have an evolved view at the same hearings.

"Guys who spent careers in law enforcement, including myself, without exception, they are for medical marijuana," said Regan.

Marsico's new bill, HB1432, is nothing but a slap in the face for advocates and patients. SB3 had already evolved into a bitter pill with severe restrictions. But Marsico's effort has earned nothing but scorn from parent groups and potential patients.

The Senate bill would have licensed more than 65 medical cannabis providers, Marsico's bill wants just five for all of Pennsylvania. That view follows the programs in New York, New Jersey and Delaware which have taken years to regulate and implement. Those states also have failed to register even 10 percent of the patients who could qualify for their programs. New Jersey's two operating dispensaries also provide the most expensive medical marijuana in the country at more than $500 per ounce.

Limiting supply raises prices far above that of illicit marijuana and offers little incentive for seriously ill residents to participate.

SB3 would have also created a new state entity, a Medical Cannabis Board, to oversee the program. Marsico's vision would have it administrated by the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. This is very odd choice since that department is focused on addiction recovery. It also appears that PTSD would not be considered a qualifying condition. That means military veterans who have lobbied for years in Pennsylvania for safe access would be left out.

Advocacy groups like Campaign for Compassion, the Keystone Cannabis Coalition and NORML Chapters do not support Marsico's bill.

All the while yet another bill, HB193, introduced in February by Rep. Mark Cohen, a Philadelphia Democrat, has been completely ignored. Cohen, who first introduced his bill 6 years ago, proposes a program more in line with what we see in Oregon or Michigan, with home cultivation and no restrictions on the whole plant.

So, currently there are three medical marijuana bills active in the Pa. House, none of which seem to be moving to the floor anytime soon.

It is also very unlikely that the House will pass a concurrent bill to what the Senate has already approved. That means the issue will have to return to the Senate. Until both chambers can agree on the same exact language, nothing will get to Gov. Wolf's desk.

The Pennsylvania legislative session is two years long. So lawmakers have until the fall of 2016 to figure it all out.

But the longer politicians spend on the topic, the more compromises get made. None of those compromises will benefit residents who are seriously ill. In the meantime, patients are getting arrested.

Ronnie Polaneczky at the Daily News recently highlighted the story of the Zorn family. They grew a small amount of medical marijuana and now face felony cultivation charges.  Of course, if they lived just a few hours away in Washington D.C., they could grow up to six plants for any reason; no harm, no foul.

In Oregon today, they are celebrating the launch of the state's full legalization law. Here in Pennsylvania, those who could benefit from medical marijuana continue to be denied access to it. Until our state legislators hammer out a reasonable law, patients in the Keystone state will continue to suffer because of where they live.

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