By: Melissa Chapaska

To date, despite continued federal prohibition of marijuana, 44 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam have adopted medical marijuana laws.[1]   Since 2014, Americans for Safe Access has undertaken an annual, patient-focused analysis of state medical marijuana laws. In addition to providing a comprehensive guide to the status of medical marijuana laws throughout the nation, ASA’s 2017 Annual Report provides a rubric for evaluating each state’s medical marijuana programs. Each state law was scored based on how well their current law and regulations accommodate patient needs in five general categories: (1) Patient Rights and Civil Protection from Discrimination; (2) Access to Medicine; (3) Ease of Navigation; (4) Functionality; and (5) Consumer Safety and Provider Requirements.  Each state was assigned a letter grade reflecting the percentage of total points earned in each category.

While California, Illinois, and Michigan received the highest grade of a B+, Pennsylvania’s newly implemented program was not far behind, surpassing neighboring and more seasoned states to earn a B- grade for the Commonwealth’s first year on the list.

Scoring High in Pennsylvania

While Pennsylvania’s program is still in its infancy, it is not surprising that the Commonwealth’s medical marijuana law received high scores given the dedication of Governor Wolf and the state legislature in establishing a sustainable, patient-focused medical marijuana program. Additionally, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has been on an aggressive but comprehensive path to issue and implement patient focused regulations  including safety standards for products and packaging.

As Secretary Dr. Karen Murphy confirmed during an informational session before the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee last October, the Pennsylvania Department of Health worked closely with other medical marijuana states to identify issues and develop best practices for Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program. The benefit of this collaboration is evident from Pennsylvania high scores in the “Ease of Navigation” and “Functionality” categories of ASA’s report.

Specifically, Pennsylvania’s law achieved a near-perfect rating for providing reasonable access to minors as a result of the Commonwealth’s Safe Harbor program, which provides protection from state prosecution for minors and their caregivers in possession of medical marijuana prior to medical marijuana being made available for sale in Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania’s law also earned high marks for its comprehensive list of qualifying conditions, including PTSD and Autism.

Ultimately finishing with a “B-“ average of 80.5%, Americans for Safe Access concludes that if “Pennsylvania can move through the implementation process in the timely manner and adopt strong product safety protocols, it would be one of the stronger programs in the country.”

While the ASA indicates that Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program is off to a promising start, the report shows that medical marijuana programs in neighboring states, New Jersey and Maryland, have been hindered by legislative limitations and implementation delays.

Room for Improvement in New Jersey and Maryland

With over 10,000 registered patients, New Jersey’s medical marijuana program has been fully operational since 2012. However, since the law’s passage in 2010, New Jersey’s program has been widely criticized for failing to provide sufficient medical marijuana access for patients throughout the state.  This criticism is reflected by New Jersey’s low score for “Access to Medicine” resulting from the program’s vertical integration requirement, lack of choice of dispensary, and the prohibition of noncommercial cultivation, among other issues.

Offering solutions to improve its “C” average of 76.6%, ASA suggests that “New Jersey needs to add more production and distribution facilities for patients, while adding civil discrimination protections for patients in the areas of housing, employment, parental rights, and organ transplants.”

Maryland also earned a “C” average from ASA, indicative of the myriad of delays plaguing its medical marijuana program since day one. While Maryland’s medical marijuana law was passed in 2014, the implementation of its medical marijuana program has been a slow process, mired in a controversy and litigation. As a result of these delays, Maryland’s program lost 10 points in the “Improvement” category because, as ASA explains, “delays in implementing the program have left patients without access for years, and although licenses have been awarded, due to law suits, it is still unclear when the first dispensary will open.”

Delayed implementation aside, Maryland does boast a perfect score for its newly adopted, comprehensive consumer safety and provider requirements. Additionally, Maryland’s medical marijuana law received high scores for its comprehensive list of qualifying conditions and allowance for a reasonable number of dispensaries.

However, despite the positive attributes of its law, ASA notes that delayed patient access will be a continuing concern as the program inches forward. In order to improve its “C” average, ASA suggests, “Maryland should look for ways to move the program forward that will not further delay patient access. Specifically, the state should begin issuing patient ID cards and pass emergency legislation that grants full legal protections to patients allowing them to acquire their medicine from a state with reciprocity.”

The East Coast Outlook

The main priority for Pennsylvania and Maryland is to continue to progress towards full implementation of their programs, while New Jersey must work towards breaking down the barriers to safe access for its patients.

Following two years of delays in Maryland, licenses for growers/processors and dispensaries have been awarded.  However, ongoing lawsuits against the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission and legislation threatening to dismantle the Commission altogether may result in more issues and delays for the already sluggish program.

The outlook is brighter for the garden state, as New Jersey moves towards expansion of its program. In 2016, the list of qualifying conditions was expanded to include PTSD resulting in a two-fold increase in patient registrations, and the New Jersey Department of Health appointed a panel of health professionals to add more qualifying conditions as needed.

With the application review for growers/processors and dispensaries already underway in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Department of Health will continue to move quickly with the remainder of the process – creating an application process for laboratories, training physicians, registering patients, and permitting successful grower/processor, dispensary, and laboratory applicants – in order to meet its goal of a fully operational program by 2018. In addition, the Department, in conjunction with Commonwealth universities and health systems and using funds received from the tax on growers/processors, will establish a comprehensive, state-funded medical marijuana research program.

Understandably, as pioneers of medical marijuana on the east coast, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey face heightened scrutiny.  So far, Pennsylvania is surviving this scrutiny with relatively high praise, while Maryland, and New Jersey  need some retooling of their existing programs.

[1] This number includes all states with medical marijuana related laws, including CBD only laws. To date, 28 of these states have legalized state-governed medical marijuana programs.