Amendments to the medical cannabis bill keep increasing

Amendments to the medical cannabis bill keep increasing

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House lawmakers continue to file amendments to Senate Bill 3—the Medical Cannabis Act. As Capital Watch goes to press, 99 amendments have been filed.

However, only one has the support of House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana — a first in the bill’s long, and often stalled, journey to the governor’s desk.

After two years of wrangling, supporters of the controversial measure are now confident SB 3 will soon see its day on the House floor, where the contingent of skeptics — including Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Health Committee Chairman Matt Baker, R-Tioga — have thwarted efforts to schedule a vote on the bill for two successive legislative sessions.

If the timeline offered by House Republican Caucus spokesman Steve Miskin last month remains accurate, Reed will turn the tide with a vote by year’s end.

Miskin couldn’t confirm if the bill would fit into the House’s agenda because the budget is still the chamber’s top priority – but he did say Reed continues to support an amendment sponsored by Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin.

Marsico served in a legislative working group at Reed’s request over the summer to analyze SB 3 and recommend ways to tweak the language so it could pass in the House. His amendment, filed last week, was based on the group’s findings, released in October.

The 44-page amendment rewrites large portions of SB 3 and delineates power of the would-be Medical Marijuana Program to the state Department of Health, as opposed to creating a new, independent licensing board envisioned by prime bill sponsor, Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon.

Of the original bill’s few surviving provisions, Marsico’s amendment upholds a list of 15 qualifying illnesses that would allow patients to access medical cannabis and allows vaporization and nebulization as a delivery method.

But that’s where the similarities end.

The Marsico amendment fleshes out the two-license system recommended by the working group, providing for 25 growers/processors and 50 dispensaries with no more than three locations each, all to be spread out among “no fewer than” three regions statewide.

The regions — another working group idea — would ensure no patient would live too far away from a dispensary.

Still, it’s less than half of the 130 dispensaries, 65 growers and 65 processors called for in the original bill and 15 fewer than the working group’s recommendation for 65 dispensaries total.

Folmer’s chief of staff Fred Sembach said last month anything less than SB 3 wasn’t enough and could force patients to “seek out other alternatives for their medication.”

Sembach believes some of Marsico’s amendment and “some of Folmer’s concerns have been addressed while others have not.”

“He will be waiting to see what, if anything, the House passes as to whether it ultimately meets his goal of getting medicine into the hands of patients quickly,” Sembach add.

The Marsico amendment also provides a blueprint for license fees and taxes collected by the state. Growers/processors would pay a $10,000 application fee, a $200,000 license fee and a $10,000 annual renewal fee. A 5-percent tax would be applied to all gross sales receipts to dispensaries, which in turn would fund the program’s expenses. Five growers/processors could also apply for a dispensary license, but must keep the sites separate.

Likewise, dispensaries would pay a $5,000 application fee, a $30,000 license fee and a $5,000 annual renewal fee. The dispensary owners and employees must take a two-hour course, administered through DOH, within the first 90 days of employment to learn to properly handle medical marijuana and identify instances of misuse under the law. The amendment also requires each dispensary to staff a physician or pharmacist at its primary location. Certified nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants could substitute at a dispensary’s secondary locations.

A statewide electronic registry would be established that contains information on every aspect of the program — from eligible patients to registered physicians to licensed dispensaries. A physician who wishes to be registered on the database would first complete a four-hour course administered through DOH. Once approved, physicians could write recommendations that allow patients to apply for a medical cannabis access card. It’s a doctor’s responsibility to inform DOH if a patient’s eligibility status changes.

Access cards would be given to patients and/or up to two designated caregivers, to be renewed on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, the state will organize a Medical Cannabis Advisory Board with appointees from the governor’s administration and the Legislature to oversee the program’s policy implementation and, within three years, recommend changes to the law.

DOH will also be required to submit a report every two years to lawmakers on the effectiveness of the program, including suggestions on how to improve it.

All of this, the amendment specifies, will be established within 18 months of SB 3’s passage.

And despite having the support of some of House leadership, it’s unclear on which side of the divide the remaining House Republicans fall.

If the 25-8 vote count from the recent House Rules Committee meeting is any indication, however, the party appears split right up to the top, with Reed voting in favor of moving the bill and Turzai dissenting.

Baker — another one of the eight “no”votes on the Rules Committee says his position hasn’t wavered, though he didn’t comment specifically on Marsico’s amendment.

“Senate Bill 3 essentially opens up access to marijuana to just about anyone who claims they have pain or a qualifying disease,” he said. “However, SB-3 will continue to be in conflict with federal law as it remains illegal. Marijuana still will not be provided by pharmacists or pharmacies because it is illegal, you will not be able to get a ‘prescription’ from doctors because it is still illegal at the federal level and the pot shops or dispensaries created will not be able to bank their money because it is illegal and thus create a cash-only scenario that is in and of itself very troubling. I am concerned this legislation will lead to drug diversion, black market sales, drug abuse and drug addiction and will increase crime, drugged driving, vehicle accidents, increased emergency room and hospital admissions.”

Baker, himself, sponsored nine amendments to SB 3, one of which limits the authority of handing out medical cannabis to patients to university medical centers only in the treatment of “individuals diagnosed with a debilitating epileptic condition.”

“The false assertions and misleading information about marijuana that it is harmless and a panacea or miracle drug is not proven or substantiated in the scientific or medical community,” he said, referencing the Pennsylvania Medical Society’s decision last month to uphold its opposition to legalizing medical cannabis. “If it were it would have been approved by the FDA years ago. Marijuana is a dangerous drug … [it] is the most abused drug in the US according to the White House Office of National Drug policy and this bill will make it worse.”