Week in Review: MMJ hopes revived in PA, regs on tap in Detroit & presidential debates go green

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By John Schroyer and Omar Sacirbey

Medical marijuana legalization gains steam in Pennsylvania, Detroit gears up to regulate dispensaries, and cannabis takes center stage at another presidential debate.

Here’s a closer look at several notable developments in the marijuana industry over the past week.

MMJ back in play in PA

Baby steps.

That’s what people behind a push to legalize medical cannabis in Pennsylvania have been taking for most of the year.

Now, they hope to take a big leap forward.

A state House of Representatives task force issued formal recommendations this week for an MMJ legalization bill, and supporters believe they are closer than ever to pushing something through.

“I think we’re going to see a bill, since the committee recommendations are now moving into the drafting phase inside the House,” said lobbyist Michael Bronstein, who has been working to get MMJ legalized in the state. “The House should re-introduce it in the next couple of weeks.”

Many advocates initially pegged Pennsylvania as one of the states most likely to legalize medical cannabis this year, and the state Senate easily approved a bill to do so in May. But the bill then stalled in the House under the watch of an anti-cannabis committee chairman.

What followed was months of political maneuvering to try and get around the opposition, and a second MMJ bill was even introduced at one point.

The task force was formed to come up with compromise recommendations, so its proposals are expected to carry weight in the House.

Bronstein said he expects all of the panel’s recommendations to be inserted into a new bill, which could then win approval from the Senate and win the signature of Gov. Tom Wolf – possibly by the end of the year.

Bronstein added that despite the likely ban on smokable MMJ (an approach also adopted by Minnesota and New York), the Pennsylvania system will most likely be much more flexible.

“There aren’t going to be 200 licenses. There’s probably not going to be 90 licenses,” he said. “But would I expect to see something sort of between 30 or 40 or 50 range? Yeah, I’d expect that.”

Momentous shift in the Motor City

In Detroit, new legitimacy will spawn new opportunities – and new challenges

Earlier this week, the city council voted 6-1 in favor of establishing a licensing regimen for marijuana dispensaries – a significant move in a state with no comprehensive regulations.

That could pave the way for new players to open up dispensaries. But it also will introduce a whole new set of challenges that some (or perhaps many) of the city’s estimated 150 existing unregulated dispensaries will be unable to meet.

Just take a look at what happened in Colorado and Oregon, two states that have already been through the transition from an unregulated market to a regulated one.

“In general, when you talk about (meeting) qualifications, it’s inevitably going to mean that some people aren’t going to make” the transition, said Joshua Kappel, an attorney with Vicente Sederberg in Denver.

In Colorado, a lot of people who operated grows and dispensaries in an unregulated market simply couldn’t meet the financial, operational and licensing requirements the state implemented.

Kappel added that in some cases dispensaries ran into licensing issues, while other owners didn’t qualify because of prior drug felonies.

Thomas M.J. Lavigne, an attorney with Cannabis Counsel in Michigan, said nothing seems especially unfair about Detroit’s licensing regulations. He is, however, worried about proposed zoning regulations  that would leave almost no room in the city to open a dispensary.

The proposed ordinance would prohibit dispensaries from opening near schools, parks, houses of worship and liquor stores.

“The pending (zoning) proposal is very prohibitive,” Lavigne said. “I’m hoping they get a lot of feedback from the public.”

The green debate

Will marijuana play a significant role in the 2016 presidential election?

There are a couple of schools of thought on that point, but one thing is for certain – it’s a serious topic that White House hopefuls can no longer ignore.

Cannabis was raised in the second Republican presidential debate last month, and it came up again in the first Democratic debate this past week.

Full legalization is expected to be on the ballot next year in at least a half dozen states, and support for medical cannabis is through the roof nationwide. Two critical swing states, Ohio and Florida, are likely to have marijuana ballot measures legalizing medical or rec. In the 2012 elections, more Colorado residents supported legal marijuana than President Barack Obama.

GOP support for marijuana reform at the presidential level has remained tepid, with candidates such as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul backing states’ rights but not legalization. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, however, said this week that he would probably vote in favor of legalization if he was a resident of Nevada (where there will be a legalization ballot question next year).

“This marks the first time a major-party presidential candidate has clearly expressed support for ending marijuana prohibition,” the Marijuana Policy Project said in a statement immediately after the debate.

The fact is, the country has probably already passed the tipping point, and the evolution of marijuana’s role in American presidential politics is clear.

It’s gone from “Just Say No” in the 1980s to “I didn’t inhale” in 1992 to Barack Obama supporting MMJ in 2008. And now, at least six presidential contenders on both sides of the aisle have cautiously staked out pro-cannabis stances of one sort or another.

John Schroyer can be reached at johns@mjbizmedia.com

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at omars@mjbizmedia.com