Although “smoke” and “good health” are not often two things you will see in a sentence together, the legalization of medical cannabis continues to be heralded as a blessing for numerous individuals across the nation, allegedly providing relief from a diverse range of conditions such as minor ailments like seasonal depression and the occasional insomnia to those much more severe like terminal cancer symptoms and epileptic seizure activity. 

Given its extensive list of potential benefits, it is really no surprise that the medical cannabis movement has gained momentum across several states, including Pennsylvania, resulting in dozens of legalized medical cannabis dispensaries opening throughout the state.

Since the cannabis decriminalization (not to be confused with legalization) took effect in Pennsylvania in 2016, the landscape of THC usage in the state has shifted dramatically. As of April 2018, the Pittsburgh area alone has witnessed a notable proliferation of legalized medical dispensaries, with over a dozen now scattered across the city and numerous others just beyond its borders.

However, navigating the legal landscape surrounding cannabis continues to be unnecessarily perplexing. 

Despite local legality, THC – the psychoactive component of cannabis –remains classified as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a classification it shares with heroin and LSD. Yet, there is a gradual shift towards decriminalization in select regions and states, including Pennsylvania, despite the remaining federal prohibition. 

In Pittsburgh, decriminalization has altered the penalties for cannabis possession, reducing them to the level of a traffic offense. Possession of up to 8 grams of hashish or 30 grams of cannabis incurs a fine, with possession of the latter resulting in a $25 penalty and smoking in public leading to a $100 fine. Courts may opt to suspend penalties in exchange for community service. Only residents who are enrolled in the Pennsylvania medical marijuana program are allowed to possess, buy and consume medical cannabis legally–however, operating a vehicle with any amount of THC in the bloodstream is illegal, as is crossing state lines with cannabis and consuming it in public or on federally owned properties. 

While state laws do not change marijuana’s status under federal law, the federal government has largely allowed states, like Pennsylvania, to implement their own laws. However, the Department of Justice has reaffirmed that marijuana-related activities remain federal crimes, regardless of state laws. Nevertheless, the risk of prosecution for medical consumption remains relatively low if usage and travel guidelines are adhered to as federal law enforcement typically targets criminal networks involved in illicit marijuana trade.

Complex Problems | Complex Solutions
In essence, the legality of possessing medical cannabis depends on your location and who’s asking.

The legal complexity extends to federal regulations, with airports, as federal property, strictly prohibiting any form of THC, regardless of local laws. Moreover, even in states where cannabis is legal, encountering a federal agent while in possession of THC can lead to drug possession charges, irrespective of medical status.

And if you think you have a lot of rules to abide by, dispensaries, serving as gatekeepers to legal cannabis, also must operate within stringent regulations. In Pennsylvania, access to dispensaries is limited to medical cardholders aged 21 and over, or their registered caregiver(s), with no provisions for recreational use. They often only accept cash payments and must always scan patient’s IDs–to name just a few of their regulations.

While Pennsylvania has yet to legalize recreational use, Governor Josh Shapiro’s recent budget proposal has once again stirred the conversation in favor of legalizing recreational use. Citing the potential for significant revenue generation, Shapiro’s plan includes a 20% tax on legal cannabis, projecting substantial income growth in the coming years that the state could definitely benefit from–and if we are really lucky, maybe take some burden off of the insanely high turnpike tolls. 

Moreover, the  proposal   emphasizes the importance of responsible regulation, with provisions aimed at addressing the disparities of criminalization and expunging nonviolent THC-related possession records. Additionally, funds have been earmarked for restorative justice initiatives, enforcement, and program administration.

Legalizing medical use was definitely a step in the right direction, but as noted in Shapiro’s plan, there is still much room for improvement in the regulation system. Presently, on and offline purchases of recreational cannabis remain illegal, but medical cannabis can be legally acquired and collected. As such, visitors to dispensaries must furnish medical cards and identification, with sales capped at a 90-day supply. 

Acquiring a medical marijuana card in Pittsburgh entails annual online registration, physician certification, and a fee (not covered by insurance), while public consumption and usage remains prohibited.

While the fog surrounding cannabis laws may seem dense, rest assured there is a shifting landscape that’s increasingly accommodating, albeit with a myriad of regulations, considerations, and debates to come. 

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