It’s High Time

CDC study demolishes last barrier against medical marijuana

For more than a year, we’ve been wondering what the folks up in Harrisburg were smoking when it came to passing a medical marijuana bill. After the Senate passed their version, only days after the inauguration of medical marijuana proponent Governor Tom Wolf, the bill languished in the House.

But a few weeks ago, House Republicans finally seemed prepared to pass an amended version of the Senate bill. And with lightning speed for that deliberative body, they did. Perhaps more striking, is that they devised a regulatory scheme for the introduction of medical marijuana into Pennsylvania based on the work of a bi-partisan task force. The bill passed the legislation on a 152-38 vote in a Republican-dominated House.

The regulatory scheme they came up with in a lot of ways makes good sense. As reported by the AP, the House bill does the following:

• The amended bill would limit medical marijuana to those who have been certified by a medical practitioner to have one of a list of qualifying conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, glaucoma and chronic or intractable pain.

• Patients could take the drug as pills, oils and liquids but not in smokeable form. Dispensaries could not sell edible types of marijuana, but patients would be allowed to incorporate it into food themselves. The grower-processors would pay a 5 percent tax on gross receipts from dispensaries.

• The bill envisions 25 growers and 50 dispensaries, and each dispensary could have up to three locations. Marijuana could only be grown in indoor, secure facilities within the state.

Of course the devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details yet to be worked out. The most troubling detail so far is how patients who meet the condition requirements will get the medical marijuana cards which allow them to purchase their medicine. The House bill contemplates a doctor’s prescription, but only those doctors who sign up for a 4-hour course that certifies them to prescribe marijuana products. It further requires the patient, who would already have a prescription from their certified doctor, to also obtain a certification from the state. Whether this is a significant or nominal impediment to medical marijuana access is, so far, unknown, but it does seem to be an unnecessary burden, ripe for mischief in the wrong state official’s hands. Those hands will not be Governor Wolf’s who, according to the Post-Gazette, “has urged the General Assembly to pass the legislation and said in a statement that he looks forward to the Senate sending him the bill [stating] ‘we will finally provide the essential help needed by patients suffering from seizures, cancer and other illnesses.’”

While Governor Wolf rightly focuses on the victim advocates, led by the parents of children suffering from epileptic seizures, we view passage of medical marijuana legislation as having far broader medical impact. In the same week that the House took its action, the national Center for Disease Control came out with its Report on Opioid Use with these findings:

“In 2013 alone approximately 250 million painkiller prescriptions were written.” This is enough, according to the CDC, “for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.” More than 165,000 people in the U.S. have died since 1999 of causes related to usage of painkillers and the increase in deaths have paralleled a huge increase in the sales of opioid drugs. The CDC concluded: “Evidence of long-term efficacy of opioids for chronic pain is limited. Opioid use is associated with serious risks, including opioid use disorder and overdose.”

Which is why the thinking of Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga, the chief architect of the delay-and-deny tactics in the House that kept this legislation away from a floor vote for more than a year, is so, well, dopey. Baker, comparing marijuana to opioids, said in a statement following the House vote, “I find it amazing that while we recognize we’re in the midst of one of the worst drug crises in history, we’re now looking to legalize the most illicit drug in America and Pennsylvania — marijuana.”

What we find amazing Mr. Baker is that you cannot see the real drug crisis is opioids and the solution to it just may be medical marijuana.