An attempt to provide protections for Pennsylvania medical marijuana patients from being charged with driving under the influence was derailed in the legislature this week, apparently due to pushback by the state police association.
Lawmakers have been working to pass standalone legislation on the issue, ensuring that registered patients aren’t penalized for having cannabis metabolites in their system, which can be detected for weeks after a person consumers cannabis. During a floor session in the House on Monday, Rep. Chris Rabb (D) sought to attach the language of the legislation to a broader vehicle-related bill as an amendment.
But the amendment was later withdrawn from consideration after the Republican co-prime sponsor, Rep. Todd Polinchock (R), pulled his name from the standalone bill, which Rabb said was “due to concerns expressed to him” by the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association.
Dem Chair of the #PAHouse Transportation Cmte, Rep. Mike Carroll, just spoke on my amendment based on bipartisan legislation, HB900. But as of earlier today, my R co-prime sponsor has removed his name from the bill due to concerns expressed to him — not me — from @PAStatePolice. https://t.co/rnsQ2wQyg8
— Rep. Chris Rabb (@RepRabb) November 15, 2021
The association recently circulated a position statement expressing opposition to the proposal, according to the lawmaker. Rabb told Marijuana Moment that he did not see the statement until after he learned that Polinchock removed his name from the legislation.
Rabb met with a liaison for the police association on Thursday—days after the House floor action—and said the group expressed concern about “the potential muddling of what law enforcement could do in terms of proving impairment.”
“There’s a perception—generally speaking, not just with state troopers or law enforcement, but generally—that somehow this amendment to this bill, which is identical to the standalone legislation I introduced, would somehow give impaired drivers who were impaired by cannabis a free pass, which it wouldn’t,” Rabb said. “It merely seeks to have parity for drivers, irrespective of the prescribed medication.”
You’ll have to ask the state police who have chosen not share their concerns with me — & perhaps not even the PA District Attorneys Ass’n which supports HB900 because having traces of #cannabis in one’s system — even weeks after it has been ingested — does NOT prove impairment.
— Rep. Chris Rabb (@RepRabb) November 15, 2021
Meanwhile, bipartisan Pennsylvania senators on Wednesday said they are introducing a bill that would also impact medical cannabis patients, allowing them to cultivate their own plants for personal use.
Rep. Mike Carroll (D), co-chair of the House Transportation Committee, spoke about the DUI protections issue on the floor on Monday before withdrawing the amendment. He said “we simply cannot have people using medical marijuana charged and convicted of a DUI when they’re not impaired.”
“It’s patently unfair and currently happening,” Carroll said. “District attorneys across the state have reached out to me and asked that something be done. House Bill 900 is the remedy. And in the absence of House Bill 900, this amendment is the remedy.”
After another lawmaker moved to table the amendment, Carroll, who did not mention the police concerns on the floor, said that other members of the legislature had asked him to withdraw the measure, which he then did.
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Rabb, who is himself a medical cannabis patient and a founding member of the bicameral Pennsylvania Cannabis Caucus, said next steps for advancing the reform would involve “getting more stakeholders in law enforcement” to offer their support and promoting “public literacy around this issue—not just cannabis, but how it intersects with law enforcement.”
The broad driving legislation the Rabb wanted his amendment attached to has now passed the House and is on its way to the Senate.
In that chamber, the Transportation Committee held a hearing in September on a nearly identical standalone bill that’s being sponsored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R).
Health professionals, lawyers and law enforcement officials highlighted the unique complications that cannabis patients and police face under the current statute and the constitutionality of the proposed reform.
The legislation would specifically amend state law to require proof of active impairment before a registered patient could be prosecuted for driving under the influence. The current lack of specific protections for the state’s roughly 368,000 patients puts them in legal jeopardy when on the road, supporters say.
The measure would essentially make it so medical cannabis would be treated the same by law enforcement as Schedule II and III drugs such as prescription opioids and anti-anxiety medication.
Bartolotta first introduced an earlier version of her bill in June 2020. She said at the time that the state needs to “ensure that the legal use of this medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction.”
Months after the standalone reform legislation was introduced, the Pennsylvania House did approve a separate amendment that would enact the policy change.
Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016, with the first dispensaries in the state opening in 2018. But the state’s zero-tolerance DUI law still doesn’t reflect those changes.
Experts and advocates have emphasized that evidence isn’t clear on the relationship between THC concentrations in blood and impairment.
A study published in 2019, for example, concluded that those who drive at the legal THC limit—which is typically between two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—were not statistically more likely to be involved in an accident compared to people who haven’t used marijuana.
Separately, the Congressional Research Service in 2019 determined that while “marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance… studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”
Outside of the driving issue, Pennsylvania lawmakers are also pursuing separate marijuana reforms in the state.
For example, a lawmaker introduced a bill last month to expand the number of medical marijuana cultivators in the state, prioritizing small farms to break up what she characterized as a monopoly or large corporations that’s created supply problems.
The legislation would still not allow medical cannabis patients to grow their own medicine, however. Efforts to add that right have been defeated in the legislature.
A much-anticipated bipartisan Senate bill to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania that has been months in the making was formally introduced earlier last month.
Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) unveiled the nearly 240-page legislation months after first outlining some key details back in February. It would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 30 grams of cannabis, five grams of marijuana concentrate products and 500 milligrams of THC contained in cannabis-infused products.
Meanwhile, Rep. Amen Brown (D) recently announced his intent to file a reform bill that he’ll be working on with Sen. Mike Regan (R), who expressed his support for the policy change a day earlier.
Additionally, a separate pair of state lawmakers—Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D)—formally unveiled a legalization bill they’re proposing.
While each measure generally seeks and end to marijuana criminalization by creating a regulated, commercial model for cannabis, there are some provisions that make each piece of legislation unique. For example, the proposals vary in how they would approach taxes, revenue and social equity.
While these recent moves to enact reform in the GOP-controlled legislature are encouraging to advocates, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R) recently tempered expectations, saying that there’s “no significant support for the legalization of recreational marijuana in the House Republican caucus.”
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate, told Marijuana Moment in a recent phone interview that he’s optimistic about the prospects of reform with these latest proposals, though he acknowledged that there may be disputes between legislators over how tax revenue should be distributed.
Gov. Tom Wolf (D), for his part, has said that a bipartisan approach to legalization “would be a great thing. I think the time is right.”
Philadelphia voters also approved a referendum on marijuana legalization this month that adds a section to the city charter saying that “the citizens of Philadelphia call upon the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Governor to pass legislation that will decriminalize, regulate, and tax the use, and sale to adults aged 21 years or older, of cannabis for non-medical purposes.”
Wolf said earlier this year that marijuana legalization was a priority as he negotiated the annual budget with lawmakers. However, his formal spending request didn’t contain legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.
The governor, who signed a medical cannabis expansion bill in June, has repeatedly called for legalization and pressured the Republican-controlled legislature to pursue the reform since coming out in favor of the policy in 2019. Shortly after he did that, a lawmaker filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
In May, Wolf pardoned a doctor who was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for growing marijuana that he used to provide relief for his dying wife. That marked his 96th pardon for people with cannabis convictions through the Expedited Review Program for Non-Violent Marijuana-Related Offenses that’s being run by the Board of Pardons.
A survey from Franklin & Marshall College released this week found that 60 percent of Pennsylvania voters back adult-use legalization. That’s the highest level of support for the issue since the firm started polling people about it in 2006.