By John Schroyer
One of the biggest disappointments for the marijuana industry this year has been the complete dearth of new states legalizing medical or recreational marijuana.
After a proposal to approve cannabis sales imploded in Ohio during the November elections, entrepreneurs put all their hopes on Pennsylvania.
Lawmakers there have been weighing proposals to legalize MMJ, but they have been unable to push anything through to this point.
Many advocates had pegged Pennsylvania as one of the most likely to legalize medical cannabis in 2015, but the chances that will happen shrivel each day the legislature fails to act.
Still, some industry observers say it still could happen just before 2015 comes to a close – or possibly at the beginning of next year.
“Everyone’s still in Harrisburg, and they’re returning the Monday after Christmas,” said industry consultant Scott Hawkins, discussing the possibility that lawmakers in the state’s capital could still legalize MMJ before the year is out. “There could be concurrent movement on this issue.”
Whether that’s likely is another question entirely, however.
Although House representatives technically have the ability to bring a key MMJ bill forward next week for a vote, “it’s fairly unlikely” that will happen, said Tom Santanna, director of government relations for the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society.
Santanna and others familiar with closed-door negotiations said the entire issue has been sidelined for months due to back-and-forth over the state budget, which was supposed to be finished and approved in July. Political disagreements between the two major parties have resulted in a six-month impasse that has had effects around the state, including for entrepreneurs who were hoping to get moving with cannabis business plans months ago.
Lobbyist Michael Bronstein believes that MMJ will still be legalized in the state, and that it’s only a question of when and what form the industry will take.
“The votes are there. There will be a medical cannabis bill,” Bronstein predicted.
And he thinks that Senate Bill 3, which sailed through the state Senate in May before hitting a wall in the House, could still be the measure that passes. If that’s the case, and if it goes through mostly intact in current form, there’s already a decent indication of what the industry in the state will look like, Bronstein said.
“The licenses currently are going to stand at 25 grower/processor licenses, and then a separate level of dispensary licenses, of up to 50. Those licensees can open up to three locations,” Bronstein said, which means Pennsylvania could have up to 150 dispensaries.
The state could therefore create the largest MMJ industry in the northeast.
Some other key questions, however, are still unanswered.
For example, the issue of whether cannabis flower will be allowed – as opposed to nonsmokable forms of MMJ – isn’t really settled. Two other states that legalized medical cannabis recently, New York and Minnesota, both prohibit smokable cannabis, which could become a trend.
There’s also been an amendment offered to insert a potency cap of 10% THC for medicine, which Bronstein said was a politically expedient way to shore up support from some Republican lawmakers who were hesitant to back the bill.
The point right now, however, is that “the situation remains fluid,” Hawkins said.
In other words, anything can happen. The House still has to deal with more than 100 amendments that have been offered to SB 3, said Santanna, which means that will take time by itself. And if the House alters what the Senate passed, then it would have to return to the upper chamber for another vote, which means more time off the clock.
The bottom line for advocates that have been pushing MMJ is they need lawmakers to reach an agreement on the state budget first, and then they’ll be able to turn their attention to other policy questions, including medical cannabis.
“Energies have really been consumed by the budget. So it’s a wait-and-see game right now,” Santanna said. “The most likely scenario is that if we see a consideration of SB 3 it’ll be in the early part of 2016.”
John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]