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 RA-DHMedMarijuana@pa.gov. 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.