Why Pot Activists Really, Really Don’t Like Pa.’s Medical Marijuana Bill

PittsburghNORML: The legislation is "teetering on the precipice of irrelevance and unworkability."



The Pennsylvania Senate passed a medical marijuana bill 40-7 this week. The GOP-controlled Senate … in Pennsylvania … gave a thumbs-up to medical marijuana. Such a freak occurrence should be roundly cheered by pot activists, no?

Well, that’s not what happened.

Here’s a sampling of things that advocates for medical pot said recently about “Senate Bill 3,” the medical marijuana bill sponsored by Sen. Daylin Leach and Sen. Mike Folmer:

  • “Legislators claim to do something, full well knowing they are doing nothing!” tweeted suburban mom Anne Gemmell, who was instrumental in getting marijuana decriminalized in Philadelphia.
  • “People are dying, at least 22 veterans are resorting to suicide every day, but apparently politics is more important to Harrisburg,” said veteran Michael Whiter, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • “In the long term, SB3 may help a handful of patients. In the short term, it will do nothing but offer false hope,” said Chris Goldstein, co-chair of PhillyNORML.
  • “I am very grateful that some in Harrisburg have fought to pass some form of a medicinal marijuana program. I am bitterly disappointed, however, at the endless compromises made in order to appease a very small number of entrenched socially conservative legislators in order to get the bill passed.  We’ve been told to ‘just pass anything’ and fix it later via amendments, but Senate Bill Three is already teetering on the precipice of irrelevance and unworkability,” said Patrick Nightingale, executive director of PittsburghNORML.

So why are pot activists so disenchanted with bill?

First, a quick explanation of what the bill does: It would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana oils, ointments, tinctures, liquids, gels and pills — no smokable pot allowed — to treat various conditions. They include cancer, epilepsy, diabetes, chronic pain, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, HIV/AIDs and traumatic brain injury.

Here’s why medical marijuana advocates say the legislation doesn’t go far enough:

  • In the best case scenario, it still will be a loooong time before sick people get relief from medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. “Even if the bill became law today, it would still be two years at least before a single Pennsylvania patient can legally purchase a Pennsylvania-produced medicinal cannabis product,” says Nightingale of PittsburghNORML. Derek Rosenzweig, a board member of PhillyNORML, argues that it could take even longer than that “Two to four years,” he says, adding, “This is an optimistic timeline. Delays are inevitable.”
  • Patients can’t grow marijuana in their own homes. Activists say one way to ensure eligible residents can take advantage of medical marijuana more quickly is to allow them to grow pot themselves. Absent of that, “they will have to wait for dispensaries to open,” says Goldstein of PhillyNORML. “New Jersey took three years to open a single dispensary for patients. Delaware is taking four years and counting.”
  • There’s no “medical necessity defense” for people busted for pot. While people who are eligible for medical marijuana wait for the state to get the system up and running, they can still face charges for pot possession. “If a patient without an ID sees the inside of a courtroom, they need to be able to say it’s for medical use and have that as an affirmative defense,” says Rosenzweig. “With a doctor’s note or testimony, it would be sufficient to acquit.”
  • Vaporization isn’t permitted in all cases. “Vaporization will only be allowed for patients with three conditions: cancer, PTSD and seizure disorders,” says Goldstein. “Those patients must seek a physician’s approval for vaporization and only use devices approved by the yet-to-be-formed medical cannabis board.”

Philly Mag’s Dan McQuade pointed out some of these shortcomings when a similar (but different) bill passed the Senate last year. And for his part, Leach, the bill’s sponsor, admits the legislation isn’t perfect. He says it’s “90 percent” of the way there, which is the best he can do at the moment because he must compromise with Republicans who control the state Senate and House.

By passing the bill as is now, Leach says, patients will benefit and lawmakers will be able to amend it in a few years to get it just right. If he held out for something more pristine, he says it would be 20 years before Pennsylvania had a medical marijuana law on  the books.

“I think anyone looking at this issue objectively would say the fact that we passed a medical marijuana bill that includes vaping, that includes chronic pain, which is a very controversial condition to include … in a legislature in Pennsylvania that is overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans,” says Leach, “is a miracle.”

Btw, a recent poll by Franklin & Marshall College found that 84 percent of Pennsylvanians support medical marijuana.