After several impassioned appeals, the state House of Representatives gave its overwhelming approval to legislation establishing a system to produce and dispense medical marijuana for certain medical conditions on March 16.
The 149-43 vote sends the legislation back to the Senate. If changes are made in the Senate, it’s unclear when the House would take up the measure again.
Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, the prime sponsor and a top legislative advocate for medical marijuana, said he was “very grateful” for the House lawmakers who supported the legislation. Now, he said the House amendments will be reviewed to make sure the legislation “works for patients.”
Senate Bill 3 would allow 50 dispensaries to have up to three separate locations, meaning potentially 150 places where patients could obtain medical marijuana after receiving a certification from a physician.
The legislation’s list of a “serious medical condition” includes cancer, epilepsy, autism, sickle cell anemia, intractable seizures, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, severe chronic and intractable pain of neuropathic origin, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies and Huntington’s disease.
In one stirring plea, Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, spoke about his diagnosis with a hereditary form of cancer. After an operation and with nearly 50 staples in his stomach, he refused his friend’s offer of medical marijuana oil to help increase his appetite, he said. He said he refused to take it because he had to “live what I preached” as a state representative. The thought of the pain his daughters might have to suffer if they were struck with the inheritable disease drove him to support the legislation.
“I want them to have access to comfort that I did not have,” he said as his voice cracked.
Rep. Mike Regan, R-York, said he had “a moral obligation” to vote for the legislation, adding that “my faith tells me that this is the moral, compassionate, right thing to do.”
Much of the opposition to the legislation touched on caution from the medical community, fear of drug proliferation, and legal issues. Responding to the emotional pleas, Rep. Chris Dush, R-Jefferson, said “let’s connect the heart to the head and do this right.”
House Health Committee Chairman Matt Baker, R-Tioga, who has led the opposition in the House, said he found it “astounding” that the chamber was going to dismiss the opinions from the medical community, which supports more research.
“As the Health chairman, I think the combined professional opinions of the medical community should mean something,” Baker said. “Their opinions should not be marginalized…My goodness, we’re talking about medicine here.”
House GOP Whip Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said he was concerned that approval of the bill would lead to confusion with federal enforcement agencies as well as potential conflicts with a variety of other state laws.
Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, said he was concerned the legislation could lead to proliferation of drug use.
Under SB3, patients wouldn’t be allowed to smoke medical marijuana. Dispensaries could sell it as a pill, oil, topical form, or forms for a medically-approved administration of vaporization or nebulization, tincture and liquid. It could not be sold in edible form, but patients would be able to incorporate it into food to aid ingestion.
A 5-percent tax on growers and producers would help fund research at universities and hospitals, and be used to offset costs for patients who can’t afford medical marijuana. The Department of Health and an advisory board would oversee the program, including creating regions so patients would have access to the drug. The board would, among other tasks, determine whether to expand or reduce the number of dispensaries and the list of applicable medical conditions.
If approved, Pennsylvania will join 23 states and the District of Columbia in legalizing a medical marijuana program.