Cannabis in PA

2016: The year Pennsylvania got in the marijuana business

Medical? Check. Decriminalization? Some places. Legalization? LOL.

Andy Colwell / for Billy Penn

It’s been a banner year for weed in the Keystone State.

After a years-long back-and-forth in Harrisburg, medical marijuana in Pennsylvania is finally legal. However, there aren’t yet any public signs of this, and it’ll be some time before medical marijuana patients can actually be prescribed cannabis for consumption.

Still, let’s not underestimate our lawmakers actually getting something done. Progress is progress. Here’s a look at the past 12 months of legal activity around marijuana in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia — and what to expect in 2017:

Medical marijuana


A Colorado Harvest Company cannabis plant of the strain Gorilla Glue is pictured inside one of the company's flowering rooms in its 10,000-square-foot south Denver facility.

Andy Colwell for Billy Penn

What happened in PA this year

A lot. In April, the legislature passed and Gov. Tom Wolf signed the state’s first legal medical cannabis bill. While the legislation went into effect 30 days after it won the signature of the governor, we still haven’t seen any, well, real public signs that medical cannabis is legal for medical purposes in Pennsylvania.

That’s because you can’t get a massive new program dispensing a once-illegal drug out the door overnight. It’s going to take time to get the regulations set by the state Department of Health and the infrastructure in place before growing marijuana can even begin to happen.

Here are the basics of the bill and what’s in place:

  • Only patients with 17 specific medical conditions will qualify.
  • Only specially-licensed doctors can prescribe medical cannabis.
  • There will no more than 150 dispensaries and 50 growing operations statewide.
  • Steep taxes are in place, too. The state stands to make millions.

What happened in Philly this year

This city’s got its work cut out for it in figuring out the best way to allow and implement state plans for dispensaries and growing operations. A City Council committee heard testimony back in September about the rollout of medical marijuana in Philadelphia, specifically with regard to economic benefits for the city and how areas with dispensaries should be zoned.

Last month, a Council committee OK’d regulations on where medical marijuana can be grown and distributed in Philadelphia. Among the restrictions are that dispensaries can’t be within 1,000 feet of other regulated uses (ex. sex shops) or 500 feet from hotels, convention centers, schools up to 12th grade and public playgrounds.

What to read to get caught up

What to expect in 2017

A lot of the same. While the state spent much of 2016 getting regulations in place for medical marijuana, it’s still nowhere close to ready to officially rolling out the program. Licensed growers and dispensers still must apply, then be accepted, then pay hefty fees to the state and then start working to get their own businesses up and running. Meanwhile, doctors will be working to get licensed themselves — if you want medical cannabis, you have to go to a doctor able to prescribe it. And some simply won’t be willing. That’s why we wouldn’t recommend holding your breath that you’ll see the full effects of PA’s medical cannabis law in 2017. It will likely be 2018 before you see a dispensary crop up.

Marijuana decriminalization

Marijuana activists pose with pride after the reported first mariju citation is issued in 2014.

Marijuana activists pose with pride after the reported first weed citation is issued.


What happened in PA this year

It’s been more than two years since Philadelphia lessened the punishments and changed the way it enforced possession of a small amount of the drug. Might the rest of the state eventually follow suit? Well, in some cities and boroughs, yes. Pittsburgh’s law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana officially went into effect in January. Harrisburg approved its own decriminalization measure and, in August, State College made moves toward decriminalizing marijuana. And Gov. Tom Wolf has said it’d be smart to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana statewide.

“I think in a lot of local municipalities, decriminalization has already taken place,” Wolf told WITF. “I think we need to do that in a more systematic fashion”

In May, state Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, introduced a marijuana decriminalization bill that would stipulate the maximum penalty for anyone caught with under an ounce of weed to be no greater than a $100 fine. At this point, anyone caught with any amount of marijuana is subject to spend up to 30 days in prison.

What happened in Philly this year

Since decriminalization in Philadelphia, arrests for marijuana have fallen off a cliff and are down by more than 75 percent. The original bill was sponsored by then-City Councilman Jim Kenney. Now mayor, Kenney has vowed his administration will review the bill’s successes and failures. He’s estimated the bill would save the city $7 million a year ($3 million in police costs and $4 million in courts costs).

What to read to get caught up

What to expect in 2017

You can certainly expect Gainey’s bill in the House to get more traction. But it’s unclear how likely passage is. The legislature is more conservative than ever before, and many of the state’s Republican leaders have made it clear: They were slowly convinced on medical cannabis, but they’ve got no appetite for leading Pennsylvania down a road toward legalization. It’s doubtful this would be approved, at least within the next 365 days.

Recreational marijuana

Colorado Harvest Company CEO Tim Cullen holds a handful of cannabis buds from the company's Golden Goat  strain in the drying room of the company's 10,000-square-foot south Denver facility.

Colorado Harvest Company CEO Tim Cullen holds a handful of cannabis buds from the company's Golden Goat strain in the drying room of the company's 10,000-square-foot south Denver facility.

Andy Colwell for Billy Penn

What happened in PA this year

PA Sen. Daylin Leach is likely the largest advocate for legalizing recreational marijuana in Harrisburg, and has several times introduced legislation that would legalize the drug in Pennsylvania. His legislation would essentially regulate weed the same way the state regulates sales of alcohol. In June, Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, officially introduced legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana, and he’s in the process of looking for cosponsors.

Lawmakers pushing for the legalization of recreational marijuana tout, among other things, the potential for huge economic gain and significant tax revenue for the state. In 2016, marijuana sales topped a billion dollars in Colorado — where the population is less than half what it is in Pennsylvania.

What happened in Philly this year

Philly likely can’t legalize recreational marijuana solely within its borders. But much of the support for recreational weed would likely come from Philadelphia lawmakers.

What to read to get caught up

What to expect in 2017

It’s pretty unlikely decriminalization will happen any time soon. Full-on legalization without a change in a federal statute? Almost fantasy at this point.

Want some more? Explore other Cannabis in PA stories.

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