Pa. House expected to vote on medical cannabis

Greg Gross
  • A House vote on medical marijuana is expected to come after lawmakers return on March 14
  • The bill has received bipartisan support but has been hit by setbacks

The much-anticipated House vote to legalize medical marijuana in Pennsylvania is finally poised to happen within the next few weeks.

But representatives must first go over an unusually high number of amendments — well over 200 —  to the measure, Senate Bill 3, before floor votes are cast after lawmakers return from recess on March 14

"Two hundred and five is really a lot of amendments and a lot to plow through," said Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, who was elected to the House in 2014. "I have not seen as many amendments on a bill since I've been here."

By comparison, House Bill 794, which would allow York and other counties to increase a tax charged on renting hotel rooms, has just one amendment that's been considered.

Amendments: Scanning the long list of proposed amendments, Phillips-Hill noted nine from one representative, 10 from another.

"Some of them open up to full recreational (marijuana) use. Those aren't from any Republicans," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House GOP leadership, adding other amendments scale back the bill.

Though the inordinate number of amendments could bog down the legislative process, possibly stalling a vote, representatives who put forth the amendments could withdraw them and lawmakers could hash out the details before the vote.

"I expect a lot of them to drop off," Miskin said.

But the inclusion of the large number of amendments has left Phillips-Hill undecided on how she'll vote on the bill.

"I can't officially come down on a position because I don't know what the legislation will look like," she said.

What it does: The bill would give Pennsylvanians suffering one of 15 medical conditions access to a medical form of cannabis. Treatable medical conditions include cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy and seizures.

A handful of drug delivery methods that do not involve smoking it would be permitted under the bill. Methods include extracted oil, edible products, ointments and tinctures.

Doctors would be able to prescribe access cards that would allow holders to get 2½ ounces of cannabis in a two-week period. A waiver from the state Department of Health would allow someone to obtain more, according to the bill.

The bill would also set up a system of cannabis growers, processors and dispensers strategically located across the state.

Supporters have long argued the drug is needed to aid themselves and loved ones battling often debilitatingillnesses.

Bumpy ride: Despite the bill from conservative Sen. Mike Folmer, R-York, Dauphin and Lebanon counties, receiving bipartisan support, including from liberal Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Delaware and Montgomery counties, who co-sponsored it, getting it to the House floor for a vote hasn't been an easy task.

Senator Mike Folmer speaks as supporters gather at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building to promote the legalization of medical cannabis in Harrisburg, Pa. on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015.   Dawn J. Sagert - dsagert@yorkdispatch.com

The bill easily passed the Senate 40-7 in May but became stuck in proverbial legislative purgatory in the House.

Rep. Matt Baker, R- Tioga County, refused to put it bring it up for a vote in the House Health Committee last year, and it was only moved to the House Rules Committee in June after a request to re-refer it was made. Phillips-Hill, who sits on the House Health Committee, voted in favor of re-referring it.

A previous version of the bill, Senate Bill 1182, died in the House Judiciary Committee when Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin County, its chair, failed to bring it up for a vote because time was too tight and there were other priorities late last session.

Optimistic: Despite the current bill's storied past, and its previous incarnations' fate, Rep. Mike Regan, R-Dillsburg, said he's optimistic medical marijuana will soon be legal.

"I think we're coming to an end of a long odyssey," he said.

A lot of amendments will likely be stripped from the bill before it comes up for a House vote, Regan said.

"I don't think you're going to see that many when it makes it to the floor," he said. "I think it's going to be a good bill that will get bipartisan support."

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has long said he has his pen at the ready to sign the bill when it gets to his desk.

"It is time to legalize medical marijuana because we should not deny doctor-recommended treatment that could help people suffering from seizures or cancer patients affected by chemotherapy. I urge quick action by the Legislature to legalize medical marijuana," he said in a statement on Thursday.

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.