Medical Marijuana Legislation Recently Proposed in Pennsylvania; West Chester Criminal Defense Attorney Weighs In on the Proposed Bill

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SB 1003 was proposed in the 2011-2012 Pennsylvania legislative session regarding medicinal marijuana. The bill, also known as "The Governor Raymond Shafer Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act," seeks to legalize medicinal marijuana in the state. West Chester criminal defense lawyer Michael J. Skinner discusses the bill and the effects it would have on current criminal marijuana charges and penalties in the state.

If Pennsylvania passes medicinal marijuana legislation, the number of individuals frivolously charged with marijuana offenses for legitimate medical conditions would greatly decrease, asserts Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Michael J. Skinner.

Legislation known as Senate Bill 1003 (SB 1003) was proposed to Pennsylvania’s 195th Legislative Session in an attempt to legalize medicinal marijuana in the state. “The Governor Raymond Shafer Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act,” provides for the medical use of marijuana and would repeal provisions of Pennsylvania’s current laws that prohibit and penalize marijuana use for qualified patients and caregivers.

“If Pennsylvania passes medicinal marijuana legislation, the number of individuals frivolously charged with marijuana offenses for legitimate medical conditions would greatly decrease,” asserts Michael J. Skinner, a medical marijuana lawyer in Pennsylvania.

Although passage of SB 1003 would give Pennsylvania citizens the state’s authorization to legally use and grow medical marijuana, they would still be subject to federal laws criminalizing marijuana and the penalties associated with federal marijuana laws. Federal laws prohibiting marijuana preempt any state laws permitting citizens to use and grow marijuana.

The federal Controlled Substances Act currently places marijuana in the strictest drug category as a Schedule I substance. Schedule I drugs have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Categorized with drugs such as LSD, Heroin and PCP, the federal government maintains marijuana is dangerous enough to meet the criteria as a Schedule I substance, despite the widely recognized medical and therapeutic benefits of cannabis.

However, this policy may change with the recently proposed federal HR 2306, also known as the “Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011,” which was introduced by Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). This bill does not legalize marijuana, but removes it from the federal government’s list of controlled substances. This would treat marijuana like alcohol and tobacco at the federal level by allowing states to enact their own policies and decide whether to prohibit, criminalize or legalize marijuana.

16 states and Washington D.C. have legalized medical marijuana, despite the direct opposition to federal laws.

“Ending marijuana prohibition at the federal level is about redefining the role of government. A federal bill like the one proposed by Dr. Paul would systematically end all conflict between state and federal laws. This would allow patients, caregivers and dispensaries safe access to marijuana without fear of being raided by the federal government,” states Skinner.    

Pennsylvania’s proposed medical marijuana legalization bill, SB 1003, provides for the freedom from arrest, prosecution and penalties if the individual is a qualifying patient or authorized primary caregiver. Qualifying individuals are those who suffer from cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, “wasting syndrome,” severe or chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, severe nausea, seizures, epilepsy, persistent and severe muscle spasms, Crohn’s disease, or any other “weakening medical condition” currently recognized by licensed medical authorities as treatable with marijuana.

Under the provisions of SB 1003, the amount of medical marijuana a qualifying patient or primary caregiver may possess is limited to six marijuana plants and one ounce of usable marijuana. The bill also requires patients and caregivers to have in their possession a registry identification card. Also, any person who is in the vicinity of medical marijuana is free from prosecution for constructive possession of marijuana, conspiracy or any other marijuana-related offense.

However, the medical marijuana freedom from prosecution does not apply to individuals under the age of 18, unless they have written parental or guardian consent and their physician has explained the risks and benefits to both the minor and their parent or guardian. The proposed bill also states a person who uses medical marijuana is not immune from prosecution for driving under the influence of marijuana.

Current penalties for common marijuana charges can include jail or prison sentences in addition to fines. Marijuana possession and distribution of less than 30 grams of marijuana are misdemeanor offenses, but other charges often arising in medical marijuana situations, including sale, delivery or distribution in an amount over 30 grams can result in felony charges.

According to West Chester marijuana attorney Michael J. Skinner, “If someone does currently use marijuana for medicinal purposes in Pennsylvania, even a small possession amount of 30 grams or less can result in a jail sentence up to 30 days and a fine up to $500. Anyone who is charged with possessing a greater amount, a repeat offender or charged with any other marijuana offense could face prison sentences and fines that are thousands of dollars.”

The proposed bill also requires the Department of Health of the Commonwealth to establish a registration system for patients and caregivers that issues registry identification cards to individuals who qualify and submit certain documentation to the Department of Health.

The Department of Health is also permitted to open its own compassion center and license privately owned compassion centers. Compassion centers are locations where marijuana can be distributed for medical use, also known as dispensaries. The bill provides for these centers to grow, process or distribute marijuana for medical treatment without fear of prosecution, but they are also required to follow certain regulations, maintain records of all transactions and permit the Department of Health to inspect the records.

Medicinal marijuana would be subject to Pennsylvania’s sales tax under the SB 1003’s provisions, and counties throughout the state that have sales tax could also tax sales of medical marijuana.

SB 1003 is similar to a house bill introduced to Pennsylvania’s General Assembly last year attempting to legalize marijuana. House Bill 1393 was introduced in the 2009-2010 legislative session, but was never voted on prior to the end of the legislative session.

Two hearings were previously held regarding medical marijuana legalization in 2009 and 2010 by the House Health and Human Services Committee. At the hearings, numerous scientists, medical experts, religious leaders and doctors favored passage of the medicinal marijuana bill and testified to the positive results marijuana has on the side effects of many diseases.

SB 1003 was most recently sent to the Pennsylvania Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.

Michael J. Skinner of the Skinner Law Firm is a West Chester criminal defense lawyer and represents clients throughout Chester County, Pennsylvania and the surrounding areas in Delaware County, Lancaster County and Montgomery County.

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