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Scarnati says medical marijuana bill on hold for now, needs more study

| Friday, June 27, 2014, 3:16 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Support for medicinal marijuana reached a high-water mark in the Capitol on Friday when the Senate Law and Justice Committee unanimously passed a legalization proposal, but that may be as far as it gets for now.

The first-of-its-kind vote marked the most legislative progress a marijuana-related legalization bill has made in Pennsylvania. Supporters have said they want the proposal to pass before lawmakers go on break for the summer, but Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati said he does not anticipate allowing a vote on the bill as legislators rush to finish a budget before Monday's deadline.

“I don't know if that's an issue we can fully vet,” Scarnati said. But the vote and discussion raise “the level of conversation” on the topic, he said.

The bill would establish a Board of Medical Cannabis Licensing charged with regulating growers, dispensers and processors.

The Law and Justice Committee held two hearings on the bill, featuring testimony from prospective patients and their families, doctors and researchers.

Patrick Nightingale, executive director of marijuana advocacy group Pittsburgh NORML, said the committee vote, while significant in a historical context, is the first step of many.

“We believe it will pass quickly, because of the amount of support we believe we have, as demonstrated by the unanimous vote,” Nightingale said.

He hopes, despite Scarnati's comments, that the Senate will pass the bill with a veto-proof majority. From there, the proposal would head to the House, where Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks County, is developing companion legislation that has garnered bipartisan co-sponsors.

Gov. Tom Corbett has not voiced support for the plan and called for more research on non-psychoactive forms of the drug.

The Senate plan would allow patients to obtain marijuana with a prescription to help treat or ease pain from certain medical conditions, including cancer, seizure conditions and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Twenty-two states allow marijuana, illegal under federal law, to be used for medical purposes.

“Despite many prejudices surrounding this issue, the use of medical cannabis offers tremendous potential as a safe and effective treatment for many Pennsylvanians suffering from chronic illness,” said a statement from the committee's chairman, Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks County.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at mdaniels@tribweb.com or 412-380-8511.

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