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Structure of medical marijuana industry coalesces in Pennsylvania

| Monday, Oct. 6, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

The skeleton of a medical marijuana industry — from potential growers to law firms offering regulatory guidance — is emerging in Pennsylvania, even though state lawmakers have yet to make the drug legal for any purpose.

Marijuana is illegal under state and federal law, classified as a Schedule I drug. But proponents who see legalization as inevitable are excited by the potential market.

Law firm Eckert Seamans Cherin and Mellott LLC, which has offices in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, last week announced the formation of a Regulated Substances Practice Group.

John Hanger, a one-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate and attorney with the firm, said the team would advise clients on how to get licensed to produce, process and distribute cannabis.

Organizers at Keystone Organic Farms in Gibsonia, which lobbied for legalization via social media, aim to run a for-profit growing business when the time comes.

“There aren't many opportunities to truly be a catalyst for an emerging market,” the company said in a statement to the Tribune-Review. “We know that we have the capacity to put the right team in place to grow chemical fertilizer- and pesticide-freemedical cannabis.”

Company representatives did not want to be interviewed. Incorporation papers filed with the state did not identify corporate officers.

Keystone Organic Farms' website and Facebook page show a logo of the state keystone with a marijuana leaf spread over it. The page says the farm's mission is: “To provide our patients with the best medical cannabis available, grown 100 percent organic.”

Jahan Marcu, a Philadelphia-based molecular biologist who specializes in cannabis research and oversight, said entrepreneurs will be “coming out of the woodwork.”

“You're going to get people who want to make money,” Marcu said. “And you're going to get people who want to work with this plant because it's done something amazing for them or someone they love.”

States with legal marijuana markets have spawned industry-specific job search websites, including Weedhire, Cannajobs and 420careers.com. Advertised positions include chemists, state regulators, truck drivers and farmhands.

“There's very significant amounts of oversight and regulation created in order to enter this business,” Hanger said. “Having said that, it's a real opportunity to enter a comparably new industry that is very much needed by thousands and thousands of Pennsylvanians.”

Gov. Tom Corbett opposes legalization. His administration is working to establish pilot programs to study using part of the marijuana plant to treat seizures in children with epilepsy disorders. That project is under way at the Department of Health.

Few session days remain for the state House to consider a Senate-approved plan to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. The bill's co-sponsor, Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, said he mainly wants to get patients access to marijuana and economic benefits are “a silver lining.”

Under the Senate bill, a licensing board would approve up to 65 growing licenses, 65 processing licenses and 130 dispensary licenses, available for $50,000 each and generating a $13 million one-time injection to state revenue.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said the proposal will be referred to a committee for a hearing.

“Members have questions; the public has questions,” Turzai said. “I'm not sure people really understand what the bill is.”

Rep. Ed Gainey, D-East Liberty, said Tuesday that he will propose including the Senate plan as an amendment to unrelated legislation to hold a floor vote on the issue.

Hanger sees “significant momentum,” even if the bill stalls this session.

Democrat Tom Wolf, the party's nominee for governor, supports the concept, said his spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan.

About two dozen states have legalized some form of medical marijuana, and Colorado and Washington legalized it for recreational purposes.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of pro-legalization lobby NORML, said the retail marijuana industry has boomed and professionalized since medical legalization began under a nonprofit model in California in 1996.

Now eastern legislators are crafting laws with markets in mind, he said.

“The reality is it's a group of business people who are organized with capital, and they expect a return on their investment.”

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

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