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Bill protects medical marijuana patients’ gun ownership rights

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(The Center Square) — Amid debate over legalizing adult-use marijuana, lawmakers say Pennsylvania’s medical program needs some improvements – and call on the governor to lead the way.

The medical program grinds against federal law: every cardholder faces the loss of their Second Amendment rights. That tradeoff was made clear in January when Warren County District Attorney Rob Greene announced that he obtained a medical marijuana card — and the law required the county sheriff to confiscate his license to carry a firearm.

Phantom impairment, too, complicates the medical program. Though a high may only last a short time, traces of medical marijuana stay in a person’s system for weeks; during a traffic stop, they could get charged for a DUI without being impaired. The General Assembly is debating a bill in the House to clarify the rules, but it still awaits action.

Soon, the Senate will have a new reform bill. Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, wants to codify in state law that medical marijuana cardholders are not unlawful users and should not have restrictions on gun ownership.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that the reason they aren’t comfortable with getting a medical marijuana card is because they’re gun owners,” Laughlin said.

Though the bill’s language is still in the works and federal law remains an obstacle, he said the change could fix some ambiguities.

“I felt that it was important to put some legislation together that just clarifies it,” Laughlin said. “If you’re a legal medical marijuana cardholder with no other issues, you should have your Second Amendment rights just like anyone else.”

The status quo leaves Pennsylvania residents in an odd position: they could buy recreational marijuana legally in almost every border state, but for medical use in their own state, some stay mum.

“We’re almost in this weird era of cannabis and guns and legality where it’s almost like the old ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ phase in the military,” Laughlin said.

Police and prosecutors statewide have adjusted accordingly — marijuana has become low-priority. Warren DA Rob Greene that district attorneys prioritize hard drugs, not low-level marijuana offenses. Laughlin noted that, anecdotally, many police officers he’s talked to want to legalize marijuana and said that “cannabis isn’t really an issue.”

Federal reforms could make some legal barriers for states disappear; Laughlin pointed to rescheduling marijuana from a schedule I to schedule II or III drug, for example. The limited access that marijuana companies have to the banking system, too, comes from federal regulations and may make the industry more dangerous than it needs to be.

For state reform, though, Gov. Josh Shapiro may need to step in.

“Pennsylvania is currently at a competitive disadvantage, losing out on critical tax revenue and new businesses to our neighbors,” Shapiro said in his budget proposal, aiming for recreational use to be legal by July 1, expecting about $14.8 million in new tax revenue for fiscal year 2024-25.

When fully mature, his administration anticipates more than $250 million in tax revenue from the industry.

“If the governor’s serious about legalizing cannabis in Pennsylvania, I think that he’s going to have to convene a meeting between House and Senate leadership and say, ‘What’s it gonna take to get this done?’” Laughlin said. “These bigger bills don’t move without some negotiations.”

The governor has treated legalization as inevitable.

“We don’t even have a choice anymore given the way in which this is moving so quickly across our region,” Shapiro said last week, calling legalization “wildly popular across the country.”

But to make it work in Pennsylvania, legislators expect more from Shapiro.

“Pick up the phone,” Laughlin said. “The governor’s gonna have to be the one to convene a meeting and get everyone at the table,” Laughlin said.

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