Philly420: Pa. House Speaker ready for medical marijuana debate

3 x 2 Mike Turzai
House Speaker Mike Turzai, who now seems willing to entertain the proposal of medical marijuana.

Last fall, Pennsylvania's medical marijuana bill was put on the House calendar for several months, but a floor vote never took place. That could change on March 14.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana) has been supportive of the measure, known as SB 3, and has pledged to put it on the calendar again in two weeks. That earned praise from Gov. Tom Wolf.

"As I have said for years, I support the legalization of medical marijuana and I believe it is long past time to provide this important medical relief to patients and families across the commonwealth," Wolf said in a statement. 

Reed formed a task force last summer to study the issue and jockeyed the bill through approval at the House Rules Committee. The medical marijuana bill had passed in the full state Senate last May and was then assigned to the House Health Committee chaired by Rep. Matt Baker (R-Tioga). Baker refused to have the bill heard. After some extraordinary politicking by House members, the bill was moved out of the House Health Committee and over to the Rules Committee. It was then released by Rules for consideration by the full House. 

Majority Leader Reed is responsible for putting bills on the House calendar but it is House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) who controls the action on a given bill. 

That Turzai has been a critic of the move has never been in question. Columnist Bill White at the Allentown Morning Call relayed the story of a terse meeting Turzai had with medical cannabis advocates. A mother named Deena Kenney told White that Turzai "went right in and started screaming at us. He was very emotional."

Many (including this columnist) pointed to Turzai as a roadblock to getting the bill heard at all this year.

Now, however, Turzai is ready for the debate, according to his spokesman Jay Ostrich.  

"The bill is taking on a very complex controversial matter," said Ostrich.

Turzai was taking his time, not playing interference, according to Ostrich.

"From our perspective it never has been an issue of bringing it to a vote,” he said. "Much of it had to do with due diligence. Our members have many concerns. That's why it will go through amendment process and floor debate."

There are more than 200 proposed amendments to SB3. Many are duplicates of similar proposals. Some seek to further restrict the bill, others hope to open it up to more patients. Ostrich says that Turzai is looking to refine the list of amendments in preparation for action on the House floor. 

As it stands, SB3 was significantly watered down from its original form before it passed in the Senate 40-7. The list of qualifying medical conditions was shortened and smoking of cannabis was prohibited. Instead, extracted oils that could be vaporized, infused into edibles, or made into topical ointments will be the only forms of medical cannabis allowed. 

Some of the proposed amendments in the House now seek to limit THC content to less than 10 percent and limiting the number of dispensaries and cultivators.

How the proposed amendments will play out remains a big question. They may whittle the bill down even further to almost nothing.

As it stands, Pennsylvania's medical marijuana bill closely resembles what passed in New York. Although N.Y. dispensaries opened with much fanfare this year, media reports have been fast and furious showcasing that program as being very difficult for patients to actually access.

Moreover, unless the Pa House approves SB3 with the exact language that passed the Senate, there will be more hurdles before a final bill reaches the governor's desk.

Both chambers must pass a bill with the exact same language. If any amendments are approved on the House floor, the bill will need to undergo a concurrence process. Senators who have long championed the measure will need to make additional compromises or the House will need to back off on their own proposals. 

Time is running out. The two-year legislative session ends this December. If a concurrent bill isn't passed by the end of this year, the entire process goes back to square one in 2017. 

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