Last spring, medical marijuana advocates celebrated a hard-fought victory as Pennsylvania legalized the medicine they hope will help them or their sick loved ones.
Now – as new leaders prepare take power in Washington – they’re watching nervously and hoping the rug isn’t pulled out from under them. And so far, they’re getting mixed messages.
President-elect Donald Trump has voiced support for medical marijuana. But several influential members of inner circle oppose it. What has advocates particularly worried is Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions – a staunch marijuana foe – for U.S. attorney general.
"At this point, it’s a lot of what ifs," said Dana Ulrich, an advocate from Spring Township and member of the state’s newly formed Medical Marijuana Advisory Board.
But she said, the thought of Sessions enforcing federal drug laws has advocates and patients concerned.
"Right now, we’re kind of gritting our teeth and hoping and praying that they leave it as a states’ rights issue," Ulrich said. "We’re definitely scared right now, for sure."
Even though Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program is rooted entirely in state law, federal drug-enforcement policy still matters. The state’s ability to establish and regulate its program hinges on the federal government looking the other way.
Marijuana – for medical purposes or otherwise – remains illegal under the federal law despite rapid changes in states’ policies.
Pennsylvania became the 25th state to allow medical use when its program was approved in April. That number has since grown to 29 after the success of several ballot initiatives in the recent election. And three more states voted to legalize recreational use of the drug, bringing that tally to eight.
Under President Barack Obama, federal prosecutors have been largely hands-off and steered clear of interfering with states that allow marijuana in some form. But a Sessions-led Justice Department could change course.
"He could make it really miserable for all the states that have some sort of relaxed marijuana laws," said Luke Shultz, a medical marijuana advocate and prospective patient from Bernville. "There’s a lot the attorney general could do to disrupt things."
Not that easy
Though a lot unknowns remain over how Trump’s administration would handle state medical marijuana laws, advocates have good reason to be nervous, said Chris Goldstein, spokesman for the Philadelphia chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Trump’s signaled support for medical use. But vocal marijuana opponents – such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi – have his ear during the transition.
And Sessions, a U.S. senator from Alabama, is viewed as one of the most outspoken opponents nationally. He declared during an April hearing that Washington must send the message that the drug is dangerous and "good people don’t smoke marijuana."
"Clearly he would be the most adversarial to marijuana legalization attorney general that we’ve had since, I would say, the Nixon administration," Goldstein said.
Whether or not the Senate confirms Sessions’ nomination, Goldstein said, anti-pot voices on Trump’s team could have a lot of influence over selecting the federal prosecutors who are ultimately responsible for enforcing federal drug laws.
But he said, a federal crack-down on marijuana would be less likely than opponents seeking to undermine the effectiveness of state programs through other channels.
Federal authorities could weaken states’ medical marijuana programs by regulating them to the point that patients’ access is limited, he said. Or he said, they could add barriers such as making it difficult for production and distribution businesses to get capital from investors.
"Act 16 (Pennsylvania’s law) was constructed for a world where publicly traded companies were going to be welcomed into this industry," Goldstein said. "I’m not sure the Trump administration is going to make it that easy."
Finally getting access
Pennsylvania’s law allows patients certified by a doctor to be suffering from certain conditions to obtain medical marijuana products from state-licensed dispensaries.
The medicine can be purchased in processed forms, such as pills, oils and ointments. But smoking the plant remains illegal. All growing, processing and distribution must happen in Pennsylvania and be licensed by the state.
The state’s now in the process of drafting regulations governing how the medicine is produced and distributed to patients. While it could take another year and a half for the program to be up and running, parents and guardians of child patients are allowed to obtain medicine from out of state in the meantime.
As of now, that roll-out is continuing as planned on the time line set by state law, said April Hutcheson, state health department spokeswoman. She said it’s important to remember Pennsylvania’s law had overwhelming bipartisan support and aims to create a program that’s medically focused and transparent.
"There are people who need this medication and we’re going to continue down this path," she said.
Local advocates say they’re hoping for the best and that Trump follows through on his statements that he’d rather see marijuana policy left to the states.
Federal policy-makers need to keep in mind that these decision affect real patients’ access to treatment, Ulrich said. She advocated for Pennsylvania’s law on behalf of her young daughter, Lorelei, who suffers from a rare form of epilepsy that can be alleviated with cannabis oil.
"We finally have people getting access to medicine and it’s making a difference," Ulrich said. "They’re getting their lives back and there’s a real threat that could be pulled away from them."
News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Medical Marijuana Advocates In Pennsylvania Concerned About Future
Author: Liam Migdail-Smith
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