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Medical pot has advocate in Pennsylvania House

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Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
House Majority Leader David Reed, R-Indiana County, talks with Trib editors and reporters on the North Shore on Monday, July 27, 2015.
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Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
House Majority Leader David Reed, R-Indiana County, talks with Trib editors and reporters on the North Shore on Monday, July 27, 2015.
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In this file photo from June 2015, House Speaker Mike Turzai listens as members debate the budget on the floor of the House of Representatives at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

For the first time since the issue landed inside the state Capitol, the House has a road map to legalizing medical marijuana.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, convened a 12-member bipartisan coalition of House members this month. He said his intention is to have a bill that passes muster with the Senate and Gov. Tom Wolf “that will be signed into law.”

The vote could be taken as early as August, “if we’re ready to go,” Reed said in a meeting with the Tribune-Review. “I just really want to get the product into the hands of folks that can benefit from it from a medical perspective.”

Reed, who rose to the majority leader spot this year, previously expressed his support to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

The issue has never been voted on in the House.

Plans to legalize marijuana for select illnesses and set up licenses for growers, distributors and sellers have passed the state Senate twice, including a 40-7 vote in May.

That bill landed in the House Health Committee. Its chairman, Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga County, was against holding a vote because federal law prohibits sale, possession, production and distribution of marijuana, and medical groups such as the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians and American Psychiatric Association oppose legalization.

Grassroots lobbying from the likes of parent-driven Campaign 4 Compassion and the fledgling Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society continued.

Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delaware County, in June tried to force a vote from the full House: 37 lawmakers — including 12 Republicans — signed the petition, but Reed shifted the bill out of Baker’s committee and into the House Rules Committee before Miccarelli could present it.

Patrick Nightingale, executive director of legalization advocacy group Pittsburgh NORML, said he believes lawmakers will act, as the issue resonates with the public.

A June poll from the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster showed 87 percent of registered voters favor allowing adults to legally use marijuana for medical purposes.

Nightingale called Reed “an honest broker” in moving discussions forward, but he remains concerned that the final product will be too restrictive on who controls marijuana production and sales.

“I’m optimistic they will have something that is workable,” Nightingale said. “The question is whether or not that is the best language, or whether it’s going to be something as patient-friendly as we need.”

Wolf’s spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, said the governor, who supports legalization, “hopes the Legislature will get to work and pass a medical marijuana bill now.”

Opposition remains. The Pennsylvania Medical Society cites the need for more research before putting pot into the hands of patients. Speaking to the Pennsylvania Press Club in Harrisburg on Monday afternoon, Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, said the Senate-passed medical marijuana bill needs to be “fully vetted” in the House because of concerns raised by numerous medical groups.

Republicans in the new working group are Kerry Benninghoff, Jim Cox, Mike Regan, Sheryl Delozier, Aaron Kaufer, Ron Marsico and Jesse Topper. Democrats are Joseph Petrarca, Ed Gainey, Mary Jo Daley, Peter Schweyer and Dom Costa.

One challenge includes making sure the system is tightly regulated, ensuring only legitimate patient usage. Reed said he envisions any system to be temporary, pending federal action.

“I think we’d all like to see the federal government do what they need to do,” Reed said, “but I don’t think we’re willing to wait for the federal government to get their act together.”

Forty-one states have legalized medical marijuana in some form, including cannabidiol oil, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“Hopefully, the federal government will get its act together, and we can dissolve the system we create,” Reed said. “We want to create a system that can bridge the gap, and when the gap is done, it can go away and it can go complete into the private hands.”

Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed to this report. Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].

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