Philly City Council wraps its head around medical marijuana

A City Council committee today heard testimony about the rollout of medical marijuana in Philadelphia.

It could be years before patients can buy medical marijuana in Philadelphia, and even longer before the city sees a dime in economic benefits.

Even so, Philadelphia City Council’s Committee on Public Health and Human Services heard testimony Friday around what Pennsylvania’s new medical cannabis law means for the city and how officials can safely and equitably manage its rollout. The hearing was organized by Councilman Derek Green, who said he’s interested not only as a legislator, but as the parent of a child with autism.

It’s hard to predict what will happen once patients in Pennsylvania are able to buy cannabis for medicinal purposes. But if the program in Pennsylvania is successful, widespread benefits could be felt across the region ranging from economic growth to potential relief from a problem cited by officials up to and including Gov. Tom Wolf: Opioid abuse.

And of course, there are the pain-relieving benefits for patients.

Among the experts who testified Friday was Lindy Snider, the daughter of the late Flyers owner Ed Snider. Lindy is on the board of several medical cannabis startups. She testified that her parents — including her famous father — used medical marijuana “as they struggled and succumbed to cancer.” Ed Snider died in April. 

While the possession of a small amount of marijuana is decriminalized in Philadelphia, the state in April became the 24th in the country to legalize medical marijuana. That means thousands of patients across the state with certain conditions will qualify to be granted a medical marijuana card from the Department of Health, after the recommendation of a doctor.

From there, those patients will be able to visit a dispensary — there can eventually be up to 150 across the state — and purchase cannabis to use as a treatment or therapy.

And while Pennsylvania now has a state law in place legalizing the drug for medicinal use, serious questions remain about how the state’s medical cannabis program will actually work. Friday’s hearing before City Council highlighted some of the concerns that remain.

Murky timeline

State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from Montgomery County who spearheaded efforts in Pennsylvania to pass medical marijuana legislation, testified first. He explaining the basics of what’s in the bill and how regulations are still being worked out at the state level.

Councilman Mark Squilla asked when patients can expect to be able to visit dispensaries. (For now, patients who *would* qualify under Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana act can apply for a “safe haven” certificate, meaning they can purchase marijuana out-of-state without fear of arrest here in Pennsylvania.)

Leach said the program from the Department of Health’s perspective should be complete within 18 months of the signing of the bill, meaning the state hopes to have issued licenses to growers, processors and dispensary operators by October 2017.

But it could be years before the state has a robust medical cannabis system statewide. James Schwartz, who’s been a medical grower in Oregon for 14 years, testified that some growing facilities are 100,000 sq. ft. or more and could take years to construct.

Leach stressed the major driver behind getting the system in place quickly is an administration amenable to medical cannabis. He pointed out that New Jersey passed a medical cannabis bill with a “hostile” administration under Gov. Chris Christie, and the state has struggled to implement a system that serves its patients’ needs on a widespread level.

That’s different — at least for now — in Pennsylvania where Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration was in favor of passing a medical cannabis bill and is working to implement the system as quickly as possible.

Equity is a huge concern

State Sen. Daylin Leach testifies before the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Public Health and Human Services.

State Sen. Daylin Leach testifies before the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Public Health and Human Services.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Medical cannabis isn’t cheap, and insurance companies aren’t paying for it. That means low-income residents in Philadelphia and elsewhere could struggle to obtain the drug, even if a doctor recommends they need it to treat an ailment.

Richard Ost, the owner of Philadelphia Pharmacy located at Front and Lehigh in North Philly, testified he’s in the process of applying for an application to operate a dispensary in Philadelphia. But he cautioned council members that some patients in the area where he operates his pharmacy may not have access to medical marijuana because it’s not covered by Medicaid.

“Look at depressed communities in Philadelphia,” he said. When the price of medical cannabis can run hundreds of dollars a month, “it creates a hardship.”

He recommended the city consider implementing a “compassionate care” program. This, he said, would ideally allow patients to be able to prove to the city they are low-income and have been approved by the state Department of Health to purchase medical cannabis. From there, he said, the program would require dispensaries to sell them cannabis at a discounted price.

Chris Goldstein, a marijuana activist and writer in Philadelphia, agreed, also stressing that equity problems have been documented in other states with medical cannabis laws where the majority of businesses that apply for and are granted licenses are owned by white males.

While the city won’t play in role in selecting who is licensed to grow, process and dispense medical cannabis — that’s up to the state — it can assist in improving access problems in low-income communities by implementing these programs.

The city’s role

Ost also asked the committee — which, by the time he testified almost two hours later, dwindled to just Green and Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez — to consider implementing an educational program so children don’t hear the words “medical marijuana is legal” and be more inclined to use marijuana for recreational purposes.

“The solution is education at the very youngest level,” he said. “Marijuana is a medicine.”

He recommended the city consider marketing and advertising campaigns, especially in any areas where a dispensary could be located, that target children. Some community education will come from the state, as is laid out in the bill which passed in April. But there’s nothing stopping the city from building on that and adding community outreach of its own.

“I think education of the whole community of what this is and what it’s doing is going to be one of the most important things,” he said. 

Cannabis and the opioid epidemic

Few members of City Council have seen the opioid epidemic at work like Quiñones-Sánchez, whose 7th district covers some parts of the city most ravaged by drugs. So she was noticeably interested when Leach cited research that indicates states with medical marijuana laws have seen a decrease in opioid overdose deaths.

Calling the medical marijuana bill “the most important piece of social legislation we’ve passed in Harrisburg in decades,” Leach said some states with medical cannabis legalization laws have seen as high as a 25 percent decrease in opioid overdose deaths. That’s because rather than turning to narcotics to manage pain, some patients were able to use cannabis — a drug that isn’t addictive like opioids. 

Quiñones-Sánchez asked several people who testified what research they’re aware of that shows what the impact on opioid use can be in places where medical marijuana is legal and easily accessible. Thomas Farley, the city’s Health Commissioner, said he wasn’t aware of any.

But Ost cited a 2014 study out of The Journal of the American Medical Association showing “states with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate… compared with states without medical cannabis laws.”

Even activists admit the research is scant, though. Snider stressed that’s because it isn’t embraced by the federal government, which still considers marijuana an illegal drug.

“The problem is it’s not legal to research cannabis for medical purposes in America,” she said. “There’s no centralized data around cannabis as medicine.”

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