Philly420: Pa. on the eve of 4/20

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf , center at table, flanked by Marijuana Advocat's Dana Ulrich, left, and Lolly Bentch, right, signs a medical marijuana bill into law at the Capitol Rotunda Sunday April 17, 2016 in Harrisburg, Pa.

Chris Goldstein is a marijuana advocate living in New Jersey

On the eve of 4/20/2016 the emerald green wave of marijuana reform sweeping across the country seems to have finally reached Pennsylvania.

The decades-long effort to break free from nearly a century of prohibition is seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

The Pa. House and Senate passed a medical cannabis oil law that was signed by Governor Wolf this week. Limited in scope and restrictive in form, this complicated bill will take about two years to bring online. Yet it does represent a definite shift by lawmakers.

During the medical cannabis debate there were dozens of passionate speeches and enlightened moments from legislators on both sides of the isle. From the politicians we heard personal stories, general drug policy rants and even the twinkling of the notion that there could be a more fundamental change.

Yet the elected officials are just coming around to a concept that has enjoyed massive public support for almost a decade. Polling for medical marijuana among Pennsylvania voters has been above 80 percent since 2009 and climbed above 90 percent last year. With such a broad public mandate the issue could no longer be ignored.

Yet your average Pennsylvanian might not recognize the products that have been authorized. Most of us would simply think of dried cannabis flowers that are smoked when asked for a poll.

That is not what Pa just legalized.

Smoking was prohibited as a delivery option in this law. Also, with indisputable language, the law prohibits any whole plant cannabis material from getting into the hands of patients.

Instead of being turned into attractive, trimmed buds, the Keystone's State's first legal cannabis plants of the 21st century will be grown, harvested and then processed into a variety of oils.

Depending on how the oils are refined they can be incorporated into food as a edible preparation or put into an e-cigarette style vaporizer pen.

The oils are extracted using a variety of techniques including butane and super-critical carbon dioxide. This is known around the country as hash oil. The extraction operations have become very refined, getting specific cannabinoid levels and also preserving the terpenes or the important flavor and scent molecules.

All of the plants and processed oils will be laboratory tested. Independent labs will become the first cottage business of the Pa medical cannabis program.

Regulations for medical marijuana laws typically take two years, although the law outlines an 18-month period for rules.

An interesting provision includes an emergency protection for parents of severely ill children. Until the state program is running, a medical necessity defense could be employed in court if a parent is caught with cannabis products purchased in other states.

A posible scenario: A parent might fly to Denver, legally purchase some adult use marijuana products. Once back in Pennsylvania, the parent would need to surrender any marijuana products if he or she is stopped by a police officer. Upon appearing in court, the parent would employ the defense and hope for an understanding judge.

Adults with any of the 17 qualifying conditions under the Pa. law must wait - how ever many years it takes - to receive registration cards and for the medicinal cannabis program to start working before they enjoy any legal protections.

Of course many parents and patients already make risky trips to obtain cannabis and pre-made oils. They find them in the underground market at home too. Other local patients have been growing their own here in the Commonwealth out of necessity.

Most patients will shy away from media attention, especially now as the predictable medical marijuana press scrum is already underway.  Reporters will be listening to anyone and everyone claiming to be jostling for a position in the nascent cannabis industry. Local ink and television will continue to feature the dour minority opposing the shift.

The regulations will be followed closely by the press along with local zoning approvals.  Perhaps that will happen sometime in 2018.

Oil-only medical cannabis laws are new territory. So far they have resulted in extremely limited access and very expensive products. The most analogous law in the country to what Pa. is trying for is having a slow launch in New York. So the bill that Pa. just passed may be more of a ideological shift than the basis for a robust, working program.

This limbo period between the passing of a law and the regulations is a dangerous one. This is when the money players, who have waited out the political debate, really show their interest.

Carpetbagging will be rampant. Lawyers, business people, and established interested from other states will begin to ply patients and the press. Some are legitimate but others are the familiar incarnation of any rush to cash in on a new commodity.

Advocacy isn't over either. The very patients the law was passed for may need to fight for years to come to make the program meet their needs.

Again, I am glad to see this ideological milestone passed but I wish it were with a more effective vehicle.

Still, it wasn't just medical access that saw Republicans and Democrats join hands this April.

Earlier this month a hemp research bill passed both chambers without a single dissenting vote.

Pennsylvania’s hemp history dates back to the founder of the Commonwealth, William Penn. The Quaker capitalist held hemp as central to his plans for agricultural prosperity.

Les Stark, a historian and hemp advocate with the Keystone Cannabis Coalition, was a leading force in the current bill.

“In 1683, one of the first measures passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly was ‘An act for the encouraging of raising hemp in Pennsylvania ‘ by making the fiber legal tender at four pence per pound to alleviate currency shortages and to promote commerce,” Stark pointed out, “In 1685, William Penn noted great quantities already cultivated in his province and declared that hemp would be among the staples of trade here.”

Special mills to process hemp fibers were scattered across Pennsylvania for centuries. But those businesses were shut down in the 1940’s as marijuana prohibition took hold nationwide.

Industrial hemp has only trace amounts of THC. You would have to smoke acres of the stuff to get high, yet it was lumped in with the other varieties of the Cannabis plant.

Industrial hemp also does not look anything like a smokeable marijuana plant. Growing 10-14 feet tall and lacking the distinctively large flower buds where potent cannabinoids are formed, industrial hemp looks more like bamboo.

In 2014, the federal U.S. Farm Act relaxed the law and allowed states to experiment with industrial hemp crops without fear of interference. Kentucky, Colorado and handful of other places harvested hemp crops under those federal provisions and local state laws.

Stark and other local advocates have formed the Pennsylvania Hemp Industries Council to promote uses for the plant. They held a hemp building workshop last summer with State Sens. Judy Schwank and Mike Folmer along with ex-Philadelphia Flyer and hemp advocate Riley Cote.

The current bill allows colleges, universities and contractors working with those academic institutions to plant research plots of hemp. Down the road it could be made available to family farmers.

Perhaps most prescient is the move away from arrests for weed.

Inspired by Philadelphia's resounding success with decriminalization - an 80 percent reduction in arrests and a savings of about $4 million - other cities in the Commonwealth are moving in the same direction.

Not all of the marijuana law reform activity this spring has been confined to the General Assembly. Some residents are not waiting for state laws to change.

Pittsburgh will be back on track to implement their decriminalization ordinance soon. Harrisburg may be next to make the shift. Wilkes Barre, State College and Lancaster all hinted at decriminalization programs as well.

While we wait for the full regulation of cannabis that is now entrenched in America to reach us and while we wait for a restrictive medical marijuana law to operate, decriminalization is a necessary relief valve.

Yet some would even twist this concept. Representative Leslie Acosta (D-Philadelphia) might mean well with her recently filed bill for statewide decriminalization but the measure has a scary provision: Mandatory drug treatment evaluations.

This is exactly the path we need to avoid locally and nationally. Jail and/or mandatory drug treatment should not be used on marijuana offenders. Period.

Bills that seek to put 18,000 Pennsylvania residents per year into even a substance abuse evaluation are simply a re-tread of incarceration and a giveaway to a powerful new health care lobbying interest. 

All of Pa. should have a policy as simple as Philadelphia: A $25 civil ticket for possession with no criminal record or possibility of jail for possession and $100 fine for public smoking. That's fair until we have our own shops with a selection of quality, locally artisan grown, affordable buds.

The next few years will be critical. Advocates, elected officials and regulators need to balance and welcome the coming changes not over-regulate the transition.

Things have changed a lot since I first got involved with marijuana activism here in Pennsylvania back in 2007 when we remained behind the bars of the policy cage. Since then I have watched a reform community that was a handful grow into thousands.

Minds and laws have been changed.

It can only get better.