The Pennsylvania House of Representatives took up a proposal Monday to permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes, a potential breakthrough for supporters who have worked for several years to get legalization through the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The debate began with passage of an elaborate amendment, crafted by a bipartisan task force, laying out rules for how the program would work, including eligibility and regulations. It was approved by a 152-38 vote, but the measure still requires a final House vote.
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.
Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga, warned that medical marijuana legalization would "hurt a lot of people," comparing it to the state's opioid problem.
"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," said Baker, who as chairman of the Health Committee had helped keep the measure bottled up.
But Rep. Joe Petrarca, D-Westmoreland, said the goal would be to give doctors a tool to help people.
"Look at prescription painkillers, and as they're used," Petrarca said. "I believe we have people dying every day nationwide from prescription painkillers. No one has overdosed on marijuana."
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Westmoreland, said there still are concerns about the use of marijuana by people who then drive on highways or work with heavy equipment.
If the bill passes it will go back to the Senate, which voted 40-7 for a similar approach in May. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf supports legalized medical marijuana.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states have comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs. Seventeen also permit the use of "low THC, high cannabidiol" products under limited conditions. California passed the first legal medical marijuana measure in the country 20 years ago.