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Implementing Pa. medical marijuana could be years off

Greg Gross
505-5433/@ggrossyd

It could be years before patients have access to medical marijuana in Pennsylvania despite a bill to legalize it clearing the House with overwhelming support on Wednesday.

Gov. Tom Wolf is photographed with medicinal marijuana supporters in the Governor's reception room at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Before officials can start implementing the bill, it first has to pass the Senate and be signed into law.

The legislation, Senate Bill 3, is now back in the Senate Rules and Executive Nominations Committee and is awaiting a concurrence vote on the floor. Since the bill was essentially gutted in the House, where at one point more than 220 proposed amendments were attached, senators will likely thoroughly vet the alterations.

"It's a huge bill, and we have to read through it," said Steve Hoenstine, spokesman for Sen. Daylin Leach,D-Delaware and Montgomery counties.

They need to make sure the bill will help as many people as quickly as possible, Hoenstine said.

The Senate is back in session on Monday, but it's doubtful the senators would vote on the bill then. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has pledged to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.

Leach was one of the numerous co-sponsors of Republican Sen. Mike Folmer's bill. Folmer represents a northern portion of York County.

The bill easily passed the Senate 40-7 in May and was approved in the House by a 149-43 vote.

Implementing: If implementation of similar bills in other states is any indication, it could take 2 to 4 years before medical marijuana would be legally sold in Pennsylvania.

A network of growers, who have to grow the plants in the state, and dispensers would have to be set up, and it's not known how long that would take.

"That's one of the things we have to figure out," Hoenstine said.

A medical marijuana bill was signed into law in New York in 2014, but the first wave of dispensaries didn't open until earlier this year, according to The New York Times.

Maryland also approved medical marijuana in 2014, but officials there don't expect dispensaries to open until next year, The Washington Post reported.

However, some state were able to get programs up and running much sooner. Minnesota enacted its law in May 2014 and its first dispensary opened in July 2015.

Pennsylvania's bill would allow people to purchase marijuana  from a dispensary after they have been certified by a medical practitioner to have one of the enumerated conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, glaucoma and chronic or intractable pain.

The state Department of Health would oversee the program. The department doesn't comment on pending legislation, a spokesman for the department said.

House votes to legalize medical marijuana in Pennsylvania

Network: Under the proposal, the state would license up to 25 growers and processors, and as many as 50 dispensaries, which could each operate three locations.

Medical marijuana could mean a cash influx for the state. The House Committee on Appropriations fiscal note attached to the bill estimates grower and dispenser application fees will net the state $7 million while the startup cost to implement the program is estimated at about $2.7 million.

Medical marijuana, which would be available in pill, oil or liquid form, would have a 5 percent tax tacked onto its sale, according to the bill.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says 23 states have enacted comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs since California passed the first in 1996.

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.