Would legalizing recreational marijuana be good for Pa.'s fledgling medical pot program?

By David Hurst for the Daily Iowegian

"With the rise of recreational shops, processors are turning their attention to products that have wider appeal. They have to make the most popular products to compete. And suddenly, specialized concentrates that some patients rely on are getting pulled off the shelves." - David Mangone

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman's county-by-county tour likely reinforced the idea that a growing number of Pennsylvanians support the concept of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

But lawmakers – and those who closely track Pennsylvania politics – say it will likely be several years, perhaps even decades, before recreational marijuana becomes legal.

And for Pennsylvania's new but fast-growing medical marijuana program, that might be a good thing – considering the impact adult legalization is having on similar programs in other states, according to the director of a D.C.-based medical marijuana advocacy group and several local lawmakers.

As some licensed operators are still working to get dispensaries running statewide – and the list of Pennsylvania patients issued cards under the medical marijuana program has grown to 161,000 – pioneer efforts are dwindling in states such as Oregon and Colorado, creating issues for patients, advocates say. 

Oregon's trail

Voters in Oregon approved Measure 91 in November 2014. That allowed adults 21 and older to purchase marijuana as of July 2015. But the first recreational retailer licenses weren't approved until October 2016.

At the time, there were 13 medical marijuana processing facilities in Oregon – each of them licensed to develop oils, capsules and other medical products for more than 400 registered dispensaries and the more than 78,000 patients they served.

Today, just 28,000 people are enrolled.

And Salem, Oregon-based PharmEx is the last processor left.

The number of medical marijuana dispensaries statewide has dwindled to three – overtaken by the hundreds of THC-focused recreational shops that now dot downtowns and suburbs.

That concerns David Mangone, director of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based group Americans for Safe Access.

"In some states, we've seen recreational marijuana absolutely collapse the medical marijuana programs," Mangone said.

His member-based company was founded in 2002 to ensure safe and legal access to therapeutic cannabis for treatment and research.

While the concept of recreational pot is often portrayed as a high point for marijuana acceptance, the push has become a roadblock for many of the thousands of patients his group represents – people who have found relief for major ailments by using medicine from cannabis components that recreational shops aren't offering, Mangone said.

"With the rise of recreational shops, processors are turning their attention to products that have wider appeal," he said. "They have to make the most popular products to compete. And suddenly, specialized concentrates that some patients rely on are getting pulled off the shelves."

Can they co-exist?

Representatives from several of the Pennsylvania's licensed medical marijuana companies told CNHI newspapers that they don't think legalizing recreational pot would negatively impact their industry.

"It certainly wouldn't hurt it," Green Thumb Industries' Pennsylvania market president Tim Hawkins said, because it "will not change a thing about the medicinal value."

Green Thumb operates "Rise" dispensaries in Latrobe, Carlisle, Mechanicsburg and Erie – and a growing and processing facility in Danville.

Hawkins said if the state legalized marijuana for adults, Green Thumb would seek to sell to the recreational-use crowd, too.

"If the law allows for recreational sales, we would sell it recreationally," he said.

But the company wouldn't abandon the medicinal mission, he said, because "we believe in the medicinal value of cannabis."

Casey Rybak, an assistant manager of the Nature's Medicine dispensary near Bloomsburg, agreed.

"Overall, I think (legalizing adult-use) marijuana would be a good thing, especially if people still use it as medicine," Rybak said.

Opposition mobilizing

But across the state, some lawmakers – and the public alike – are worried about the potential consequences of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

After seeing a mostly pro-pot crowd attend Fetterman's Johnstown-area tour stop, the faith-based Forest Hills Ministerium organized an anti-pot movement in Cambria County this summer – speaking out against the idea of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

Joe Stains, a Mount Hope United Methodist senior pastor, is among several people in the group who have circulated petitions against recreational use of the drug, arguing that marijuana is more potent than it was 20 years ago – and that, much like alcohol, wider availability could lead to substance abuse problems, negative effects on learning and other concerns.

Alongside the Cambria County Drug Coalition, the group attracted a crowd of more than 80 people – many of them retirees – to a forum in August at Forest Hills High School in Sidman.

"We're seriously concerned about this," Stains said.

"Youth who use marijuana by age 15 are four times less likely to graduate from high school," Cambria County Drug Coalition Executive Director Ronna Yablonski said. "Studies have linked it to increased risks of suicide ... yet it's being considered for sale over the counter by retail clerks."

State Rep. Wayne Langerholc Jr, R-Cambria County, also opposes recreational marijuana.

As a former prosecutor, Langerholc said he would not back any plan that would legalize pot for the general public. He said state officials need to focus on ensuring that Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program reaches its potential.

"The medical cannabis industry is in the early stages here," he said. "We need to devote our efforts and energy into making sure it succeeds."

State Senator Pat Stefano, R-Fayette County. agreed.

"We just rolled out this program – and there are companies that have invested a lot of time and money into getting their companies off the ground, as well as their delivery and treatment methods," Stefano said. "That could all go out the window with adult-use legalization."

Another way

Marijuana advocate Patrick Nightingale believes there's room for both medical and recreational marijuana.

Because of the way Pennsylvania rolled out its medical marijuana program a few years ago, the state could legalize pot and yet avoid the fate of so many other states, said Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

The key is incentivizing medical marijuana program card-holders to remain in that program, Nightingale said.

He said the state could tax the cultivation, growth and sale of recreational marijuana at 35 percent – versus just five percent rate dispensaries pay for medical cannabis. The state would likely be able to keep recreational prices higher than medical sales – and in doing so, collect an estimated $581 million in new revenue annually.

Mangone said Illinois – the most recent state to legalize marijuana – tried a similar move this year to keep its medical marijuana program thriving, and there are signs that program might yield success.

Illinois enacted a tax that moves on a sliding scale based on the amount of THC a product carries, he added.

No appetite for the move

Two Philadelphia-area senators have introduced legislation that would legalize the substance to people ages 21 and older – but Langerholc and Nightingale both said that plan won't go anywhere in the coming year.

It's likely state leaders could find ways for the programs to co-exist – but there isn't a strong enough appetite for recreational pot within Harrisburg's Capitol Building, Nightingale noted, saying politics are at play.

With Wolf's administration warm to the idea of recreational marijuana, the GOP, which controls both the House and Senate, doesn't want to give the Democrats a victory, Nightingale said.

Daniel Mallinson, an assistant professor at Penn State Harrisburg and researcher of marijuana policy, offered a similar take.

“Pennsylvania has to get this through the legislature, which is a different political monster than a ballot initiative,” Mallinson said.

Pennsylvania isn't alone. New York and New Jersey will have to do the same for recreational pot to become legal. Despite the fact that both are liberal states with Democratic governors, they have not yet found a way, he noted.

“They’re going to have to figure it out,” Mallinson said of New York and New Jersey, “and pave the way before a more conservative state like Pennsylvania.”