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!!

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