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Hurdles complicate children’s access to medical marijuana

State regulators are trying to clear obstacles so that sick children in Pennsylvania can start using medical marijuana legally, but hurdles remain.

In July the Pennsylvania Department of Health began allowing patients under 18, through their parents, guardians or caregivers, to apply for permission to use medical marijuana before the statewide program makes it available to everyone.

But the medicine may not be so easy to find, at least through legal channels.

A safe harbor provision in Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law, known as Act 16, is designed to protect the caretakers of children who are currently taking medical marijuana, but the provision states that they have to “lawfully” obtain the medicine, which won’t be available in Pennsylvania until 2018.

Most other states that allow use of medical marijuana limit sales to residents.

Even if patients find a state that distributes medical marijuana to non-residents, it’s still illegal to cross state lines with the substance, according to Andrew Blasco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Industry Group.  

Yet, Blasco doesn’t think that law enforcement is going to devote resources to enforcing the law if people have proof the state allowed them to obtain it.

Still, it is unclear which states, if any, will recognize patients from Pennsylvania, according to multiple sources.

Pennsylvania does not have agreements that call on other states to recognize its patients who are eligible to take medical marijuana, according to Justin Moriconi, a Philadelphia attorney with Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney.

“Because Act 16’s safe harbor provision requires a patient or caregiver to ‘lawfully obtain’ medical marijuana, arguably patients will not have lawfully obtained it, because other states do not have reciprocity with Pennsylvania or similar safe harbor provisions,” Moriconi said.

The health department declined to comment on regulations in other states. A spokesman reiterated the language of the safe harbor:

“The Safe Harbor letter (not card) states that if a parent, legal guardian, caregiver or spouse of a minor under 18 years of age with a serious medical condition lawfully obtains medical marijuana from outside Pennsylvania to be administered to that minor, the parent, legal guardian, caregiver or spouse does not violate Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program, or Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act,” Wes Culp, deputy press secretary for the department said in an email.

The department also confirmed it has received safe harbor applications. However, it is not releasing the number of applications it has received or approved, according to department secretary Karen Murphy.

In addition to implementing the safe harbor provision, the department is writing regulations for growers, processors and distributors, and it is starting efforts to reach out to physicians across the state.

Protection sought

In early conversation about medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, advocates raised concern about caretakers being charged with drug-related crimes while waiting for a legal program to start.

They wanted a provision to protect patients in the interim, according to Lolly Bentch Myers, who is a co-founder of Campaign for Compassion, a medical marijuana advocacy group. Myers is one of the mothers who first approached Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) about legalizing medical marijuana.

Under the law passed this year, patients under the age of 18 will be allowed to use marijuana in the forms for which it was approved under state law – pills, oils, tinctures or liquids, gels, creams or ointments, as well as vaporization or nebulization.

The safe harbor provision was never intended to provide patients with access to medical marijuana from other states, only to protect them from being charged for possession of it in Pennsylvania.

“It only protects you in these state lines,” Myers said.

Finding safe harbor

To apply for permission to use medical marijuana under the safe harbor provision, parents, guardians or caregivers first must be caring for a child who is suffering from one of the qualifying conditions listed under Act 16. Those conditions include epilepsy, autism and Crohn’s disease.

The caretakers can then download an application from the department’s website. As part of the process, a doctor must verify that a patient has one of the eligible conditions.

Caretakers then must undergo a background check with the state police, provide their Pennsylvania driver’s license and answer additional questions. The forms can be uploaded to the website and submitted to the department.

The department has been attentive and diligent in getting things done in a sensible time line, Myers said.
Although she has yet to submit her application, she’s heard from several people that the turnaround time for receiving a safe harbor letter from the state is about 10 days.

Lenay Ruhl

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