Capitolwire: Surveyed voters overwhelmingly support medical marijuana, but the legislators representing them aren’t so sure.

By Christen Smith
Staff Reporter

HARRISBURG (April 6) — While an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvania voters may support medical marijuana, the legislators representing them aren’t so sure.

Particularly in the House, where Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said Monday he doesn’t think Senate Bill 3 — which would legalize certain forms of the drug for medical use — would garner many votes, right now, despite its seemingly-fast track to passage in the Senate this month.

“I don’t think there’s support for the Folmer bill,” he said, referencing SB 3’s main sponsors, Sens. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, and Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery. “It’s about what it does. It allows massage therapists and veterinarians to write prescriptions, which isn’t appropriate.”

Miskin clarified that because of medical marijuana’s Schedule I drug classification status at the federal level, hospitals and pharmacies may be reluctant to dispense it as a prescription, therefore SB 3 allows “healthcare providers” to instead write a “recommendation.”

That recommendation is what patients would need buy the drug legally, but Miskin says some members feel the language in the bill doesn’t go far enough to restrict who can write them.

Robert Ribic, a top staffer in York County Republican Sen. Scott Wagner’s office who helped Folmer write SB 3, insists that isn’t true.

“Senate Bill 3 defines a healthcare practitioner as someone in the commonwealth who already has the authority to write prescriptions,” he said. “It doesn’t extend the authority to anybody. It clearly states that the doctor who has the authority to write a prescription for a Schedule III controlled substance may write a recommendation for medical cannabis and nobody else.”

SB 3 does define healthcare practitioner as follows:

“An individual as defined under section 2 of the act of December 20, 1985 (P.L.457, No.112), known as the Medical Practice Act of 1985, who is authorized to prescribe Schedule III drugs under the act of April 14, 1972 (P.L.233, No.64), known as The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act. The term shall not include an individual licensed under the act of May 1, 1933 (P.L.216, No.76), known as The Dental Law.”

Schedule III drugs, according the state’s controlled substance act, include some sedatives, morphine derivatives and anabolic steroids.

The 1985 law referenced in SB 3 defines “health care practitioner” more loosely:

“An individual, other than a physician assistant, who is authorized to practice some component of the healing arts by a license, permit, certificate or registration issued by a Commonwealth licensing agency or board.”

Veterinarians and massage therapists appear to fit that description, though it’s just one of many questions lawmakers and stakeholders continue to have about the legislation.

Perhaps Dr. Charles Cutler, vice president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said it best when he told House lawmakers during a hearing last month regarding SB 3, “Despite how the Medical Society has been painted by some of your legislative colleagues, our position is not a pro or con position, it is a ‘let’s learn more’ position.”

Yet, in a Quinnipiac poll released Monday, 88 percent of 1,036 voters surveyed support adults using marijuana for medical purposes “or if their doctor prescribes it.”

Another 51 percent would go a step further and legalize small amounts of the drug for personal use, even though two-thirds of those surveyed said “they would definitely not use it.”

Chuck Moran, spokesperson for the medical society, said Monday the survey results don’t surprise him.

“Yes, I can believe there was a high percentage who support legalizing medical marijuana,” he said. “It places the legislators in a tough position since they know research on the topic is not thorough and primarily at an anecdotal level.”

And it seems House lawmakers agree with that statement, with more hearings scheduled seeking clarification on many of the bill’s potential unintended consequences.

“There has not been any whip on it (SB 3),” said Miskin. “We’ve just begun vetting the issue. Ideally the Obama administration and the DEA and the FDA will work out the issues on the federal level. Their absence is forcing states to take it into their own hands, which is not ideal.”

During hearings last month with the House Health and Judiciary committees, Miskin said the bill’s supporters and detractors both felt the testimony was skewed against them. He said there will be another hearing in two weeks to deal with law enforcement issues arising from SB 3.

“There’s a lot of questions and a lot of things that need to be worked out,” he said.

Questions abound for the medical society, too.

“Gold-standard research needs to be finalized first, which is what we support,” Moran said. “In addition, if the state is going to bypass the FDA process and ask physicians to prescribe or recommend medical marijuana, then physicians will need liability protection much like has been written into the Senate bill to protect the state.”

But over in the Senate, GOP spokesperson Jennifer Kocher said Folmer’s legislation “enjoys bipartisan support, just as it did last session.”

Last session, Senate Bill 1182, identical legislation introduced by Folmer in January 2014, passed on a vote of 43-7 in September.

Ribic, who now serves as executive director of the Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee, says support for SB 3 in the House is far more widespread than has been reported.

“I believe the votes are there in the House and I believe there is a small contingent in the House that does not want to see this up for a vote,” he said.

SB 3, Kocher confirms, will receive a committee vote by the end of the month, putting the bill in position for a final vote by the full Senate. She said the House is free to amend the bill to tighten perceived regulation missteps once it is in that chamber.

Meanwhile, Kocher and Miskin say, there are no plans for legislation designed to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use.