Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Choose Patients

On April 17th, 2016, Medical Cannabis advocates in the state of Pennsylvania enthusiastically rejoiced as they witnessed Governor Tom Wolf sign SB3 into law. Victory was ours. Compassion won. And for a moment, there was peace in the hearts of patients and their loved ones.

We had been assured that as soon as the law went into effect, that parents of children who suffer from a condition listed in SB3 would fall under the protection of the “Safe Haven”. We were told during the time temporary regulations went into effect, after a 6 month period of drafting, that adult patients would be issued some sort of protection as well. We were satisfied.

Our beloved Luke Shultz, a chronic pain patient
who patiently continues to wait for safe access to medical cannabis.

Although the framework for the safe haven was set into the legislation, the adult protection seems to have been a costly assumption. It has now been communicated to us that any patient over the age of 18 will have to wait the 18 to 24 month period that it will presumably take to see our program operational. Not to worry though, “No one will prosecute patients,” they say…

Last week, our advocacy community was alerted to action being taken in the House Judiciary Committee. After almost a year in that committee, House Bill 1422 was being brought up for a vote. HB1422 amends the The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, specifically the guidelines on marijuana possession.

As written today, HB1422 proposes that for the first offense, the guilty party would be fined no less than $500. For a second offense, they would be fined no less than $750, both of these being a summary offense. For a third offense, the charge would be a third degree misdemeanor and they would pay a fine of no less than $1000.

Some have said the intention of this bill is to unclog the judicial system. That would make a whole lot of sense if these fines were perhaps slightly more reasonable.

Some say the intent was to undo the decriminalization ordinances that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have enacted. We may be getting closer to the truth here.

Some have said the intent was to deter people from using marijuana, after all we can’t just have everyone walking around with a buzz… But wait, there’s plenty of booze to get the job done. So…I’ll be the bearer of bad news, I suppose. Their logic is deeply flawed.

One brutally honest soul speculated that this was intended to generate revenue. Marijuana users are low hanging fruit.

All of this sort of left my head spinning. I just keep wondering if anyone was really listening to us. I did not just spend 3 years of my life fighting for patients to have the right to use medical cannabis just to spend the next 2 years watching them be punished for doing so.

If elected officials in the state of Pennsylvania wish to perpetuate the war on drugs, then I must respectfully ask that they take patients off the battlefield.

For 2 months, we have been diligently working towards a solution for the adult patients that don’t fit under the umbrella of this safe haven, so pardon me if I say this feels like a cold hard slap in the face of our community. While I realize if this bill were to actually be signed into law, jail is no longer a threat to them, I must ask that our legislature consider the outcome of the case where the chronic pain patient who lives off of a modest disability check can’t pay their fine. Spoiler alert: Their ass goes to jail.

A handful of adult patients who need to be legally protected...

Sure, sure, I understand many of you may think this is a dramatic overreaction, but I assure you ladies and gentlemen, unless you or your loved one are living day in and day out in agony, suffering from a disease from which you can only find relief in using medical cannabis, you have absolutely no right to expect these exhausted families to stay calm.

We need you to know, there are real people suffering, waiting for you do what is right. There are people whose conditions didn’t make the final cut. There are mothers who have children, who are over the age of 18, however, due to years of seizures, have suffered such horrific brain damage that leave them at the cognitive level of a small child. To us…to the people who heartbreakingly love them…they are still our babies. We are begging for your help. We are still waiting.

Two of my very favorite people, Susan and her daughter, Sara (21),
who sadly will not have legal protections to use medical cannabis
for her Autism and Crohn's Disease.

I’ll leave you with the words of Stephen Grellet, “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow human being let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Choose kindness. Choose compassion. Choose real, meaningful reform, as a gesture of good will towards a community of weary patients.

~Latrisha Bentch

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

UPDATE & CALL TO ACTION (Wednesday, June 8, 2016):

There are many new advocates joining our ranks to improve patient access to medical marijuana (mmj). We also have new issues to identify and work to improve as the roll-out and establishment of the medical marijuana program continues. To help with these efforts we'll review a few of the most pressing problems and what actions can be taken to correct them. Included below are specific points to consider when contacting public officials and others in this effort. This blog builds upon the information and actions outlined in the blog of June 2.

Most PA patients and advocates seem to agree that the biggest and most immediate problem with the mmj law/program is lack of patient protections. Like it or not, establishing the mmj program is a huge undertaking that will take some time (most estimates are 18 to 24 months) because there are a ton of regulations, policies and procedures that need to be created, approved and implemented. That's the way our government works. If you want to debate the advantages and disadvantages of governmental bureaucracy please start a new site because that discussion will take the rest of our lives and overwhelm this site.

The PA medical marijuana law (ACT 16) includes limited patient protections for the interim between when the law went into effect and when it is full operational. It is mainly in the form of a “safe haven” clause for minors, which was to take affect 30 days after the law was passed. The Department of Health (DOH) is reporting that they will have regulations in place regarding this sometime in July. It is unfair that this protection be allowed for one small patient population and not for all qualified patients. The safe haven clause was included in the bill and approved by the Legislature. Our position is that all patients matter and all patients deserve protections from the draconian laws against the cannabis plant.

The regulations for the safe haven protection have not be finalized yet, so we don't know exactly what they will do except that mmj access cards will be issued to caregivers of minors to identify them as having met the criteria to be enrolled in the PA mmj program. That does a couple things for those patients/caregivers. It means they can pursue access to “legally obtained” mmj in states that allow non-resident “card-carrying” patients to do just that (known as reciprocity). We're not sure how the DOH is going to address the issue of bringing mmj products back to PA, which could involve violating other laws.

The other thing that the safe haven will do is to provide a legal defense (lawyers: feel free to add or clarify this in comments section below). Provided you have your mmj access card and otherwise comply with the conditions of ACT 16 (such as using mmj for an approved medical condition, using an approved form of mmj, etc.), you can use the defense that you were complying with ACT 16 should you be prosecuted for possession of marijuana (and/or providing marijuana to a minor). It's far from perfect, in that you could still be arrested and prosecuted, but it does have legal merit. The problem, again, is that this interim protection will not be for adults.

ACTION: make it know that the limited safe haven protection should include all patients.

1) CONTACT PA LEGISLATORS to let them know that the limited patient protections that they passed were not good enough. Protections should be extended to ALL patients as soon as possible. Urge the Legislators to do what they can to fix this or pressure those who can.

2) CONTACT THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH and urge them to extend the safe haven protection to ALL patients. If the systems can be implemented to make the safe haven clause work for minors, such as issuing access cards, then we expect those systems to be expanded to include ALL patients. You can e-mail them at

3) CONTACT THE MEDIA to express your concern over the lack of patient protections for adult mmj patients. This could take the form of letters to the editor of your local newspaper or contacting radio and TV news departments to cover your concerns. Let them know how this issue affects you and your loved ones.

The other very important option to improve patient protections is to decriminalize marijuana in PA. Note that although we focus on changes at the state level, we would certainly not object to changes at the federal level, like the removal of marijuana from the schedule of controlled substances and greater access to conduct research on the medical benefits of marijuana.

Recently a very effective and simple bill was introduced in the PA House by Representative Ed Gainey to amend the PA The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (ACT 64) to reclassify possession of small amounts of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense. House Bill 2076 would decriminalize a marijuana possession charge and reduce the punishments from a fine of up to $500 and up to 30 days in jail to a fine of up to $100. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. It is conceivable that the Legislature could pass the bill in this session (which ends the end of this year) if they wanted to. It's a matter of getting them to want to.

Passage of HB 2076 would not only help patients who are waiting to legally access mmj through ACT 16, but it would help those not covered by ACT 16 such as patients with medical conditions not recognized by the law. In addition there are many other very good reasons to pass this law which should be conveyed to the lawmakers.

It is an absolute waste of tax dollars to process people through our judicial system for the offense of having in their possession a plant, or a product made from it, that is far less harmful than alcohol. Possession of the cannabis plant is a “victim-less” crime that harms no one and causes no property damage. Marijuana has never been prohibited, restricted or otherwise outlawed because science or medicine has shown that it was harmful to individuals or society. It was made illegal for other reasons which were totally unjust, such as corruption, greed and ignorance.

The real harm from this situation is actually caused by the law itself. Having a criminal record can negatively affect your ability to get or keep employment, housing, obtain loans for education and even serve in the military. The laws are applied in a racially unbalanced and unjust way in that people of color are arrested and prosecuted for marijuana possession at a greater rate than whites, even though actual possession and use rates are similar or greater in white populations.

You will often hear the phrase “what about the children?” in a shallow attempt to maintain the status quo on marijuana laws. No one is advocating for allowing children to access and use marijuana other than for health issues. Those resistant to change worry that we will be sending the wrong message to kids if we relax the laws. We should be open and honest with kids and not feed them lies and misinformation, as was done for many decades. We certainly don't prohibit the use of alcohol for this reason – in fact alcohol is often glorified in our society even though alcohol is by far the most abused and destructive drug we have. Not only do we allow its use, but the state of PA is the largest purchaser of spirits in the world, via the PLCB! Why are the prohibitionists not concerned about this message?

Not only have 20 other states decriminalized marijuana, but Philadelphia adopted an ordinance in 2014 which gives police the option of issuing a $25 fine. Pittsburgh officials took a similar stance this year, and communities including State College and Harrisburg could soon follow. Governor Wolf has gone on record as a supporter of marijuana decriminalization.

ACTION: Get the Legislature to pass HB 2076

1) MEET WITH, CALL, WRITE TO, E-MAIL your PA House Representative and Senate member (and others, like members of the House Judiciary Committee) to urge their support to co-sponsor and pass the bill. Let them know how adoption of this bill could be beneficial for you or a loved one, the taxpayers of this state and those whose lives would otherwise be devastated for being caught with small amounts of marijuana.

2) CONTACT THE MEDIA to express your concern over limited patient protections in ACT 16 and how HB 2076 could offer real legal relief for them. This could take the form of letters to the editor of your local newspaper or contacting radio and TV news departments to cover your concerns. Let them know how this issue affects you and your loved ones.

3) EDUCATE OTHERS (friends, family, neighbors, etc.) and urge them to contact their PA State lawmakers to pass decriminalization. Let them know how this issue affects you and you loved ones and that they are paying for this injustice with their tax dollars.

Of course there is more to the story of marijuana in PA and the United States, and more reasons to decriminalize it, so try to keep up with reading the articles, studies and other info that is coming out daily to improve your ability to effectively advocate. Thanks!!

Friday, June 3, 2016

PA Medical Marijuana Program Update, June 2016

We have a medical marijuana (mmj) law in PA, known as ACT 16 thanks to the many advocates, their families and all of their hard work. We now need that kind of support to establish a good, workable mmj program.

Most who are reading this are concerned about the mmj issue because we, or someone close to us has a serious health issue that could possibly benefit from mmj. Being denied access to a plant that offers a variety of medical utility is simply unacceptable. That needs to change. It is extremely frustrating that it hasn't happened yet and that we have to work so hard to make it happen. Campaign For Compassion (C4C) and our outreach group, PA Advocates for MMJ is all about educating and advocating for patient access to medical cannabis. Part of that process involves identifying problems so that we can work on solutions. Once problems are identified, our energies should overwhelmingly be focused on positive change. The PA advocates have made history but our work is not complete. The following is an update on the mmj program and what we need to do to make it work better for patients.

As you probably know, the complex task of developing the mmj program has been assigned to the PA Department of Health (DOH). The Bureau of Medical Marijuana is being set up under the DOH to oversee the implementation and day to day operations of the program. Applications for the position of Director of the Bureau were received and it is anticipated that the position will be filled by mid-July.

In the mean time, a team from the Governor's office, DOH staff members and Secretary of Health Dr. Karen Murphy are working to set up temporary regulations to get the program started. On Wednesday, Dr. Murphy gave a press briefing outlining their priorities and outlook for the program. The DOH will hold update briefings monthly to report their progress. They will also post information on their website and offer channels of communication to allow input from all stakeholders, including patients and advocates. We need to use the DOH's transparency and accessibility to our advantage. Staying informed is key to our ability to effectively advocate for the best mmj program.

From the DOH website:  “The first temporary regulation will be for growers/processors so that those entities can come online and begin to produce products. A survey is available on the department’s website to allow for input on the development of this particular regulation.” This aspect of the program is important to get established because the logistics of licensing and constructing grow facilities and getting plants in the ground will take some time. The survey will be addressed below.

Dr. Murphy reported in her briefing that regulations regarding access for minors, via “safe haven” are also being developed and are expected to be posted in July. Extending that safe haven access to all patients was not addressed, except that access for all patients will be allowed once the program is fully implemented. This goes against what we've been previously told, which was that safe haven protections would include all patients in the temporary regulations established within the first six months of the law.

The safe haven clause of ACT 16 allows for caregivers of minors to obtain and use mmj products “legally obtained” in another state or country provided it is used within the conditions of the law, such as for a qualifying medical condition and product form recognized in the law. Details of the safe haven regulations being written by the DOH are not finalized but will include issuance of access cards to caregivers.

Understand that C4C has always supported and fought for immediate patient protections for when the law took effect. We did not advocate for minors or any other subset of patients only. We always have and always will advocate for ALL patients. The PA Legislature chose to add the confusing and difficult language that resulted in the safe haven for minors clause. The PA Legislature could also fix this problem and include all patients with an amendment to ACT 16.

If you are new to advocating at the state level it's important to understand that only the PA Legislature can enact or change state laws. The general populous cannot vote for state laws on a ballet initiative or anything like that. Your Legislator is supposed to represent your concerns with regard to state law. They need to understand how state law is or isn't working for you and your family. Let them know how you feel about the lack of patient protections in ACT 16 and that they need to support an amendment which clearly allows for patient protections. A bill needs to be drafted, so there is currently no legislation on this to refer to.

You are also encouraged to support, and urge your state law makers to support, House Bill 2076, a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. This amendment would offer legal relief to patients across the state, including those who do not qualify under the (mostly arbitrary) list of medical conditions identified in ACT 16. Under HB 2076, marijuana possession would be a summary charge resulting in no more than a $100 fine, rather than the current misdemeanor criminal charge resulting in a fine of up to $500 and imprisonment of up to 30 days. As long as patients are still being criminally prosecuted and jailed our work isn't done.

The DOH also needs to hear from you. In addition to reviewing how other states have set up their mmj programs, they want to know what is important to PA stakeholders. They are asking for our input and are providing several ways to do so, so lets take advantage of it.

You can contact the DOH directly by email with questions and concerns about the mmj program at When contacting them, try to be as clear and concise as possible. Explain your question or concern and what, if any, action you would suggest. They cannot change law, but they do have latitude in how the program operates. For now it would be best to focus on issues related to getting the program established. In the future we can work on expanding the program to include more medical conditions and adding products like plant material.

As mentioned above, the DOH is using surveys on their website to receive input from stakeholders in specific areas of program implementation. The current survey is titled “Questions for Public Input on Growers/Processors” and will be active until 5pm on June 15, 2016. Even though this survey is for input on regulations regarding growers/processors, it does allow for patients and others to participate. So if you have ideas on how this part of the program should work, then this is your opportunity to be heard. It's expected that a variety of surveys will be used to gather input on all major components of the program.

As always it's important for you to stay informed and engaged in the process. There are relevant articles, news reports and official info such as that which is on the DOH website coming out almost daily. Share what you know with your doctors, public officials and others to help gain support for this very important program.