A bipartisan bill expected to be introduced soon in Harrisburg would loosen regulations of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program and could substantially increase the number of cannabis patients in the state.
A memo on the legislation co-sponsored by state Sens. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, and Mike Regan, R-York, said the bill would eliminate the list of 23 qualifying conditions and instead allow any doctor authorized to prescribe controlled substances to prescribe medical cannabis to patients.
Brewster said the timing is right to expand the state’s medical marijuana program, which he said has seen success since it was first implemented five years ago without experiencing any major setbacks.
“We are doing this bill to make it more convenient,” said Brewster. “We have watched it for five years now, and it is time to free it up.”
Pennsylvania medical marijuana patients must now be diagnosed with at least one of 23 qualifying conditions, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, opioid use disorder and epilepsy. The vast majority of marijuana patients qualify under anxiety disorders.
Brewster said the program has seen steady growth since its inception — the number of licensed grow facilities has increased from 12 to 33, one of which is in McKeesport in Brewster’s district. He said he believes there is room for the program to grow.
There are more than 423,000 active medical cannabis patients in Pennsylvania, but Brewster said about 700,000 people have given some indication that they are interested in joining the program.
Dr. Adam Rothschild, a certified medical marijuana physician in Pittsburgh and a member of the PGH MMJ practice, said the proposal to allow doctors to prescribe medical cannabis beyond a list of qualifying conditions would greatly expand the program. He supports recreational marijuana legalization and sees this proposal as a big step toward that goal.
“If this becomes a bill and it passes, it would become a de facto adult recreational use legalization,” Rothschild said.
Brewster said he was a reluctant supporter of the medical marijuana program when it first passed, but at this point, he believes more Pennsylvanians should have better access to medical cannabis. He said rural residents shouldn’t have to travel far to see certified doctors, and that doctors in their own communities should have the freedom to prescribe cannabis.
“Legislators are not doctors, and we should be trying to expand that list when necessary,” he said.
Brewster acknowledged that many in the state are seeing a path to legalizing recreational marijuana. He said he believes issues such as impaired driving rules for marijuana users still need to be worked out before he supports that, but he recognizes his bill moves a step closer to full legalization.
The bill has not been finalized and he expects spirited debate when it is brought up in the Senate.
Another issue Brewster said he supports is eliminating the annual certification fee for the medical marijuana program, which he called “more of a nuisance fee” on patients.
That would save patients between $125 and $200 a year in certification fees, Rothschild said.
The vast majority of patients’ costs come from purchasing medical marijuana, not the yearly fee, Rothschild said. He said patients pay between $150 and $200 a month for marijuana medication.
He said eliminating the annual fee would benefit patients, but the best way to lower costs would be allowing patients to grow their own cannabis. Separate legislative efforts to allow that have stalled.
Rothschild said the certification process currently is a bit of a rubber stamp, so Brewster’s proposal wouldn’t come as a huge shock. He said 95% of his patients have extremely quick appointments for medical marijuana and don’t derive much benefit from being re-certified each year.
“I don’t think that opening up certification to untrained providers would cause much harm,” Rothschild said, adding that he thinks there are benefits for doctors to receive training on medical cannabis, especially if they are not really familiar with the product.
Rothschild said he isn’t sure how much support Brewster’s proposal will see from medical marijuana doctors and certification centers. He said ending the yearly certification fee would likely face strong opposition because it would effectively end the certification industry that has popped up since medical marijuana was first implemented in 2018.
Rothschild mainly practices family medicine, and his medical cannabis practice is on the side. He said some doctors have altered their practices to mainly or completely serve as medical cannabis practices, and this bill could see pushback from that community.
“I know doctors who are making money doing this,” he said. “I don’t see them being supportive of this.”
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