25 April 2016

The Post Gazette reports

The hard-fought march to medical marijuana in Pennsylvania took a groundswell of public opinion, years of lobbying and changes of heart across the Legislature.

But even advocates for the law, signed a week ago by Gov. Tom Wolf, suspect another challenge may await the measure. That’s because the Pennsylvania legislation appears to concentrate regulatory power at the state level, leaving local officials with limited influence over dispensaries and marijuana cultivation, legal observers said.

“I guarantee: There will be some municipalities in Pennsylvania, somewhere, that try potentially to pass an ordinance saying, ‘We don’t want any marijuana organizations,’” said Justin Moriconi, a regulated-substances attorney in Philadelphia.

He said any attempts at local prohibition likely would be overturned, despite the sustained resistance to medical marijuana in several pockets of the state. The state House voted 149-46 — and the Senate, 42-7 — to allow several non-smokable types of the treatment.

Unlike laws in California, Colorado and Oregon, the Pennsylvania rule denies individual communities the leeway to block dispensaries selling the drug, according to interpretations by independent analysts and legislative offices. The state Department of Health declined last week to address the nuance, saying any discussion would be speculative while health officials explore the law and its implementation. It’s due to take effect in about three weeks.

Still, any grow operations, processors and dispensaries will need to follow local zoning for industrial and commercial land uses, said Fred Sembach, chief of staff to Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County. Mr. Folmer helped lead the legislative effort for years.

“When you have different rules in different localities, it creates a host of uncertainties,” said Mr. Sembach. He said that’s especially true in Pennsylvania, home to 67 counties and more than 2,500 municipalities.

Other supporters argued that inconsistent local rules could inhibit access for patients, fracturing a regional distribution system envisioned under the law. Pennsylvania is the 24th state to approve medical marijuana.

“The goal in signing this into law, and with the Legislature’s passing it, is not to restrict people’s access. It’s to give them as much access as they need” under doctors’ recommendations, said Jeffrey Sheridan, a spokesman for Mr. Wolf.

Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga, said he fears a separate set of problems, citing more than 100 California municipalities that have banned medical marijuana dispensaries. He said the shops can face robberies targeting cash or marijuana products, among other hazards. “I would support municipalities having the freedom to self-govern in way that best protects their citizens from negative consequences of legalizing pot,” Mr. Baker, the chairman of the House Health Committee, wrote in an email message. He imagines some local officials “will move in this direction once they start to see the negative consequences that [have] been experienced in some other states that legalized many years ago.”

Neither the Pennsylvania Municipal League nor the state Association of Township Supervisors has opposed the state law. At the league, governmental affairs director Amy Sturges said she knew of no municipalities that want to impose their own marijuana restrictions.

While a community may not want a medical marijuana operation, “this isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight,” said Elam Herr, assistant executive director at the supervisors association. Establishing an infrastructure for the drug’s production and distribution could take 18 to 24 months, according to the health department.

Further, public health advocates said Pennsylvania can learn from states that earlier approved medical marijuana. The commonwealth already has set a number of restrictions tougher than those in several other states, limiting eligibility to patients with of 17 diagnosable conditions. Treatments will be available as pills, oil and topical forms, although health officials have yet to determine all the specifics.

The law also allows for 150 dispensary locations and no more than 25 licensed grower/ processors, at least to start. Strict requirements including mandatory electronic tracking, surveillance and indoor cultivation should help safeguard the growing and processing operations, Mr. Sembach said.

Taken together, supporters said, the restrictions should prevent the Pennsylvania medical marijuana scene from becoming as loose as those in California, Oregon and Colorado, all of which have allowed smokable products and home cultivation. Some towns in those states hindered medical marijuana sales over fears the drug would seep into recreation and crime.

“I think we were just waiting to see what the implications might be,” said Josef Lucero, mayor of Alamosa in southern Colorado. His city banned medical marijuana sales in 2010 to see if spill-over from other areas might drive up crime rates there.

Several years on, Mr. Lucero said, not much has changed. “There’s been a slight increase in crime, not anything really significant. I think that’s why we’re going to discuss it again,” he said of Alamosa’s ban.

Five or fewer states give municipalities strong authority over whether and how to allow medical marijuana, said Greg Huffaker, an attorney at Denver-based CannaRegs, which tracks cannabis rules. He said about five others center that power at the state level.

Additional states with medical marijuana fall somewhere in between on the regulatory spectrum, Mr. Huffaker said.

“We haven’t really had time to see the benefits and drawbacks of a lot of local authority — not much at all,” said Amanda Ostrowitz, a co-founder at CannaRegs. ”I don’t think there’s been enough time to watch it play out.”

To Karen Hacker, the Allegheny County health director, even guidance is key. “In most scenarios for public health, it’s much easier if we’re dealing with a consistent message from the state across all counties as opposed to every jurisdiction developing their own strategies.”