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January 04, 2017

Lawmaker: Recreational weed's future in Pennsylvania relies on success of medical marijuana

A Democratic state representative from Philadelphia plans to push a bill to legalize recreational marijuana during the new legislative session that began in Harrisburg on Tuesday.

But Rep. Jordan Harris, D-186th, knows his success of broadly legalizing pot in Pennsylvania likely will hinge on how the current medical marijuana program pans out.

"Keep an eye out on the rollout of medical marijuana," Harris told PhillyVoice Thursday. "How we do that, and the success of that, will either give us the momentum we need, or present the roadblocks."

Harris, who represents parts of the South Philly and Southwest Philly, announced plans to introduce a recreational marijuana bill in April, shortly after medical marijuana was legalized. In July, he began searching for co-sponsors.

Lawmakers were able to push through bipartisan legislation on medical marijuana, yet not without heavy restrictions. The drug will be available to patients suffering from one of 17 qualifying conditions, and can only be consumed in pill, oil or ointment form.

In December, state officials announced they were accepting applications for the first phase of growers and processors, as well as distributors. To start, there will be 12 applications for growers and processors and 27 applications for distributors, which will be split up geographically based on the expected needs of patients.

Philadelphia, for example, will get three permits for medical marijuana dispensaries. But the potential locations of those dispensaries are limited. They can't be within 1,000 feet of a public, private or parochial school or a daycare. Temporary regulations also prevent them from being in malls or a doctor's office.

Harris cautioned fellow policy makers of "too much regulation," something he views as a potential snag in the medical marijuana rollout, and therefore a barrier to the future of recreational pot legalization.

He labeled some of the restrictions on dispensary locations in Philadelphia as "figments of our imaginary fears," noting how a CVS pharmacy that carries the highly-addictive OxyContin can be within a block of a school, unlike a medical marijuana dispensary.

"I don't want us to regulate ourselves out of opportunity, particularly in Philadelphia," Harris said, adding that he wants the program to succeed in Philly not only as a Philadelphian, but also as a Pennsylvanian who realizes the program's future relies largely on how it does in the state's biggest city.

Medical marijuana, like recreational marijuana, should be viewed as an entire industry, Harris said. Fox example, the armored trucks that come pick up money from dispensaries and the potential creation of delivery services, he said, are new businesses and are part of the broader economic impact of medical marijuana's legalization.

Harris couldn't name any potential co-sponsors for his recreational bill, but said "there's definitely interest." He also said he's open to changing his legislation, which he said has been written but not yet released publicly. 

He "loves" the possibility of selling the drug at state liquor stores but isn't married to it if someone has a better idea. Again, he said, people are on pause because they're waiting to see how medical marijuana does.

State officials don't expect sales for medical marijuana to begin until mid-2018, casting doubt on Harris' ability to get any serious support for his legislative hopes this year. But he said that won't stop him from trying.

"We'll continue to be vigilant in the push for that."