Senate weighs options on Pa.’s medical marijuana legislation

The fate of legislation to legalize medical use of marijuana in Pennsylvania is in the hands of the state Senate – and lawmakers there have questions.

The legislation, Senate Bill 3, passed the House of Representatives March 16 on a 149-43 vote.

The Senate has two options – vote on the bill as it is and send it to the governor, or make additional amendments and send it back to the House for a second vote, said Fred Sembach, chief of staff for Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon).

Senators are questioning whether the bill can be implemented as passed by the House, Sembach said.

Sembach expected more definitive answers about the Senate’s course of action when it returns to session next week.

The first question surrounding the bill is that the bill’s language was changed to medical marijuana instead of medical cannabis, which the Senate used originally to differentiate the bill from recreational marijuana.

Second, the Senate originally wrote the bill so that there would be an independent advisory board overseeing the program. The House has rewritten it so that the advisory board operates within the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and there is no obligation for the department to follow recommendations made by the board.

Another question surrounding the bill’s language is that there is as a lack of specific authority for dispensaries to operate. It also doesn’t specify exactly how close cannabis-related business can operate to organizations such as schools and day care centers.

The bill currently requires growers and processors to make a deposit of $500,000 in a financial institution, and dispensaries to make a deposit of $150,000 in a financial institution.

The requirement creates a major barrier for cannabis-related businesses to get started, because banks are federally insured and marijuana is federally illegal. Banks run the risk of losing insurance by serving clients in the cannabis industry.

Only about 30 percent of cannabis-related businesses have access to bank accounts, according to Justin S. Moriconi, a Philadelphia-based attorney specializing in regulated cannabis.

Folmer sponsored the original medical marijuana bill with Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Delaware, Montgomery). That bill passed the Senate in 2014 on a 43-7 vote.

The House made more than 200 amendments to the bill before passing it this month, according to previous Business Journal reports.

Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to sign the bill into law when he receives it.

The governor’s signature would make Pennsylvania the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana.

A medical marijuana industry, meanwhile, likely wouldn’t be fully operational until the end of 2018, according to  Moriconi.

The law could impact a variety of industries in Pennsylvania, and open doors for cannabis-related businesses in the state.

Lenay Ruhl

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