Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis law created an Advisory Board to make recommendations to the Department of Health. The Board is comprised of medical professionals, law enforcement representatives, patient advocates and appointees from the majority and minority parties. Pursuant to section 1201(f) the Board “shall have the power to prescribe, amend and repeal bylaws, rules and regulations governing the manner in which the business of the advisory board is conducted and the manner in which the duties granted to it are fulfilled. The advisory board may delegate supervision of the administration of advisory board activities to an administrative secretary and other employees of the department as the secretary shall appoint.”
The Advisory Board submitted its first recommendations to the Department of Health. The recommendations included allowing “dry leaf or flower” to be cultivated and sold at Pennsylvania’s licensed dispensaries. The law previously defined “medical marijuana products” as processed oils (including concentrates), tinctures, pills, and topicals. While smoking cannabis is specifically prohibited by the law, a form that can be “vaporized or nebulized” is permitted, thus opening the door to flower. The Board also recommended adding four qualifying conditions – Neurodegenerative Diseases, Dyskinetic and Spastic Movement Disorders, Addiction substitute therapy – opioid reduction and Terminally ill. Further, it recommended cancer in remission as qualifying as well as simplifying the definition of “chronic or intractable” pain.
The Department of Health had up to one year to act on the recommendations of the Board. In a move that excited patients and advocates, Dr. Rachel Levine on behalf of the Department acted quickly adopting all of the recommendations above. Her rapid reaction is significant for a number of reasons: 1. It demonstrates the importance of the support of the Executive Branch. During the efforts to pass medical cannabis reform activist and legislators ran in to a brick wall in former Governor Tom Corbett (R). The former Governor refused to meet with patients and dismissed medical cannabis as a “gateway drug.” When Governor Tom Wolf took office in 2015 he made it clear that he fully supported the program. 2. The Advisory Board does not exist in name only. It clearly took its responsibilities seriously and acted quickly to address some important patient concerns; 3. Adding dry leaf/flower as a “medical cannabis product” give patients greater ability to find products that effectively treat their condition. Equally important is affordability. Processed oil products have been expensive as PA waits for its licensed cultivation facilities to be come full operational. Providing access to the plant itself at a lower price point than processed products is critical for patients on fixed incomes as medical insurance does not cover medical cannabis products.
As more cultivation facilities become licensed and operational patients will have increased abilities to find the strain or product that most effectively treats their condition. By adding cancer “in remission” and streamlining the definition of “chronic pain” more patients will have access to medical cannabis. The four added conditions bring the number of defined qualifying conditions up to 21 from 17. Adding “addiction substitute therapy” is especially critical as Pennsylvania, like the rest of the nation, struggles to cope with the opioid crisis and the consequences of over-prescribing addictive narcotics. Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program may have gotten off to a bit of a rocky start, but patients can feel confident that the Advisory Board takes its role seriously and is committed to improving the program.
Patrick Nightingale is the Executive Director of Pittsburgh NORML. You can follow their work on Facebook and Twitter. Visit their website at http://www.pittsburghnorml.org/ and make a contribution to support their work by clicking here.