PA medical cannabis regulatory backlog is at a ‘crisis’ state

Attorney: PA medical cannabis regulatory backlog is at a ‘crisis’ state

Image by DEZALB from Pixabay

by John L. Micek, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
September 15, 2021

Good Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Not too long ago, Harrisburg attorney Judith Cassel took a look at Pennsylvania’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry and saw — you’ll pardon the pun — an opportunity for growth.

So she opened a practice-within-a-practice at Hawke, McKeon, and Sniscak, where she was already a partner, and threw all her energy at the emerging sector. That specialist firm, Cannabis Law PA, is among what’s becoming a highly competitive sector of legal practice.

Cassel, a former track-and-field All American at Penn State University, said that kind of competition comes naturally. With a background in regulatory law, mainly in energy issues, she said it was an easy switch to the marijuana industry.

Cassel spoke to the Capital-Star this week about her job, and the marijuana law class she teaches at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in suburban Harrisburg. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity and content.

 The campus of Widener Commonwealth Law School in Susquehanna Twp., Pa., Dauphin County (screen capture).

Q: So tell me about this class you teach at Widener. What is the genesis? And what do you cover?

 Judith D. Cassel (Submitted Photo)

Cassel: “I believe it’s the first of its kind in Pennsylvania. In 2020, Widener was the first to implement a class. And it’s one of 35 across the country. I have been teaching this course this year and last year. It’s well-attended, and the students seem to be very engaged.”

Q: This is a relatively new industry. What is your area of practice? How did you find your way into medical marijuana law?

A: “My practice focuses on marijuana and hemp. I’m a partner at Hawke, McKeon, and Sniscak, and I have a medical marijuana practice within that law firm, Cannabis Law PA. There’s about five of us in that practice. We operate exclusively in the footprint of marijuana, medical marijuana, and adult- use marijuana should it arise. We have attorneys licensed in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, New Jersey and Ohio. And we do regulatory consulting work in other states across the U.S. for strictly cannabis issues and matters … we try to provide all necessary services for marijuana entities.

” … I’ve always been in some type of regulatory law. I have a background in energy … I saw marijuana in the forefront, and assumed it would be a very heavily regulated market.”

Q: The state has been criticized for the lack of transparency surrounding its regulatory practices when it comes to the industry. Where do you see areas for further improvement?

A: “I think that the Department of Health has done an excellent job of getting this program up and running, and certifying what is above beyond projections. Pennsylvania was supposed to max out at 250,000 patients, we are over 550,000 patients. We have up to 23 conditions that can be treated by medical marijuana.

“There are some great challenges that still exist in the Pennsylvania market. The first is banking. They really need to take it out of being an all-cash business. It’s not great for patients to be carrying all that cash into dispensaries. It’s not great practice for patients to be [potential] targets. And it’s not great for tracking and transparency.

“There’s also a lack of responsiveness from the Department of Health on all issues … there are probably more than 100 people who are waiting to be employed in Pennsylvania who can’t be because of the slow response time at the Department of Health.”

Q: Is that just bureaucratic inertia? Or is there something else at play?

A: “That’s a great question. Every process I’ve been involved in, from product to market approval, it goes into a vacuum for weeks, if not months. A person can’t run their business as it should be run. And that’s coming to a crisis state.

“We’ve implored the Department of Health on every level to be more responsive. My latest proposal is that the Department of Health set up monthly Zoom meetings, so that [they] are speaking to stakeholders who can submit questions in advance. They are reluctant to interface with stakeholders. But the questions can be selected in advance, and they can answer the questions that are critical to be answered.

“In an hour’s time, they could assuage a lot of the concerns that are out there. It doesn’t solve the individual requests, but it does go a long way toward ending the email exchanges where stakeholders are just trying to get a response, Something has to be done. You can’t run a business like that. They can’t run a marketing event, the simple things that other businesses put on. It’s a giant lag on the industry.”

Q: What else needs to happen?

A: “There needs to be another phase of applications and more permits issued, because patients far outpace the market. And they really need to provide opportunities to disadvantaged groups, as well as Pennsylvania residents [to break into the industry].

There are enough multi-state operations, or MSOs. We need to give people a chance to get in on this. I want to be clear, companies are not buying permits. They’re not allowed to do that.”

Q: What’s the spread of these MSOs compared to the locals? If you had to ballpark it? Fifty-fifty? Seventy-thirty?

A: “We’re looking at least 70 percent MSOs. They do a good job. They are the experienced stakeholders and we need them. But we need mentoring [from them] so that disadvantaged groups can get experience. Sens. [Dan] Laughlin [an Erie Republican] and [Sharif] Street [a Philadelphia Democrat] are backing it. There’s support on both sides of the aisle.”

 Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman [Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller]

Q: Let’s talk about legal, adult-use cannabis. Obviously, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has been proselytizing for it for years. Gov. Tom Wolf finally came around. And surrounding states, like New Jersey, are legalizing. What do you think it’s going to take to finally get it approved?

A: “We’re a lot closer than we ever have been. Republicans and Democrats realize it’s a benefit in many ways. It adds revenue to the budget. It reduces costs [from law enforcement]. There’s the practical budget piece, and people will have their records expunged so they can be part of the workforce, adding tax revenue.

“There aren’t better farmers in the world than there are here in Pennsylvania. We are one of the best agriculture centers in the world. Why would we not take advantage of this opportunity? We can incentivize [people] and have the entire Legislature on board.

“We’re at a turning point with all the states around us. This is a thing whose time has come. Even the [federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has said there has not been a single overdose death from marijuana. And Pennsylvania has used it as a treatment for opioid addiction because it reduces cravings. There are so many benefits from us legalizing it. We’re promoting farming and criminal justice [reform]. Tell me what the down side is here?”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: [email protected]. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.