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Philly420: Pennsylvania going backward on marijuana

SB3 can no longer be called a medical marijuana law. It's a "limited cannabis products" bill.

The Keystone State is missing out on the progress being made on cannabis policy across the nation. That's because legislators in Harrisburg, even those who support reform, are crafting onerously complex bills.

Yesterday, the Senate State Government Committee unanimously passed SB3, a bill to legalize some forms of cannabis for medical uses. But the current language, if eventually passed into law, will bring little change in the real world.

The measure was amended before the committee vote to reinstate two conditions that were arbitrarily removed last year: glaucoma and HIV/AIDS. But the rest of the extensive amendments took an already limited bill and watered it down even further. New conditions cannot even be considered until two years after the bill passes.

This was all in sharp contrast to promises made by the bill's sponsors, Senators Mike Folmer and Daylin Leach, that SB3 would be expanded. Both stated that they hope to make further revisions before a Senate floor vote.

SB3 is being presented as a "medical marijuana" bill that would bring swift relief to suffering patients, especially children with seizure disorders. But the truth is that patients would never actually get any dried plant material into their hands. Instead, like 11 other states, Pennsylvania would only allow processed cannabis oils and tinctures.

Smoking, vaporizing and even prepared edibles would still be illegal. This flies in the face of all the peer-reviewed scientific data and thousands of years of common practice. Somehow heated inhalation, with its quick uptake and instant relief, has been demonized and left by the wayside. It will also take years to regulate, if it passes.

Florida, Illinois and Iowa passed similarly limited laws. A year later none of those states  - or any of the others with oil-only laws - are even close to actually serving products to any patients.

Delaware signed a law four years ago, one that actually allows plant material to be sold and has even registered patients. But they still have nowhere to purchase any legal cannabis since the state's single dispensary is not yet operational.

The most optimistic estimate by Harrisburg insiders is that the bill would take at least three years to go through the regulatory phase here. The children with seizure disorders will have a long wait, some into their teens, for any relief.

The narrow scope, severe restrictions and years-long forecast of implementation is a massive disappointment to potential patients and advocates. Thousands of Pa. residents, even those with medical conditions that would qualify, already access the underground marijuana market. Most of them smoke or vaporize. Very few use orally ingested oils. They will have no incentive to join the program if it eventually gets running. That means there will be very low participation.

HIV, cancer, Crohn's Disease and other patients also find dosing with oils problematic. They prefer the immediate relief and easy titration with inhalation of dried cannabis flowers.

When the bill makes it over to the Pa. House it will likely be limited even further. Accurately, this can no longer be called a medical marijuana law. The only definition that fits is a "limited cannabis products" bill.

Politicians should be more honest about the concept rather than giving false hope to severely ill residents.

SB3 isn't the only odd piece of marijuana "reform" legislation active in the capitol.

Rep. Thomas Caltagirone , a Democrat from Berks County, has introduced HB819, oddly titled "Innovative Funding for the Criminal Justice System."

This bill would essentially decriminalize marijuana possession statewide. That's the good news. But the caveat would be a massive increase in fines.

Right now, state law says that a fine "of no more than" $500 can be imposed on someone for possessing up to 30 grams of cannabis. In common practice, the maximum fine is rarely levied against offenders.

Caltagirone's bill would make the fine a "minimum" of $500 for the first or second offense, $750 for the third offense and $1,000 for the fourth or subsequent offenses. HB819 does remove any possibility of jail by making possession a summary instead of a misdemeanor. Still, most offenders do not go to jail now for small amounts of weed.

But since there are more than 17,000 such arrests per year the state could make more than $8 million on the backs of underground cannabis consumers. That is if they can afford to pay the fines.

Most of those arrested will be hard pressed to do so. While they may not face jail for the marijuana offense itself, thousands of residents could end up behind bars simply for being too poor to pay. The extra costs associated with jailing people over unpaid fines will eliminate any "innovative funding" and end up costing the Criminal Justice system even more.

John Oliver has a great segment about excessive local fines here.

Or check out the National Public Radio Series Guilty and Charged here.

Philadelphia's civil violation structure is a far better option. Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who is in charge of patrol units, said that police officers have embraced the new policy during a seminar at the Community College this week.

If legislators really want some new funding they can follow the example of Colorado and collect tens of millions by fully legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana.

Rep. Caltagirone and Senators Folmer and Leach certainly have their hearts in the right place. Now they need to fight harder to put that sentiment into more tangible legislation.

Offering medical patients a long wait for limited products and asking underground consumers to pay greater fines will only keep residents of the Keystone State firmly under the boot of prohibition. All while we watch other states enjoy far better options.

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