Pennsylvania lawmakers have advanced a pair of bills meant to prevent police from charging medical cannabis patients with impaired driving without proof of intoxication.
The Senate version of the legislation from Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R) cleared the Senate Transportation Committee, with amendments, in a unanimous vote last week.
Meanwhile, a House bill sponsored by Rep. Christopher Rabb (D), which is drafted differently but meant to achieve the same goal, passed that chamber’s Transportation Committee, 14-10.
Bartolotta said the measure—an earlier version of which also advanced last year—is designed to close a “loophole” in Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis law that currently permits law enforcement to arrest and prosecute patients for driving under the influence of marijuana without demonstrating that they are actively impaired.
“In 2016, we legalized the use of medicinal cannabis for a myriad of conditions. We were very careful with how the language was crafted in an attempt to avoid unintended consequences,” the senator said during the committee meeting. “Since that time, it has become very obvious that we overlooked one very important aspect.”
She pointed out that the majority of states, including some that have not legalized medical marijuana, require proof of impairment for DUI cases. But Pennsylvania’s law maintains that cannabis is considered a Schedule I drug for the purposes of impaired driving, regardless of a person’s status as a state-registered medical marijuana patient.
That’s led to situations where people have faced DUI charges after being stopped by police, identifying as a medical cannabis patient and then being required to submit to a drug test that showed the presence of inactive THC metabolites, which can stay in a person’s systems for days or weeks after using marijuana.
“No one should be put through this situation if they are legally and responsibly using medical cannabis in Pennsylvania,” Bartolotta said. “It is past time that we correct this egregious oversight.”
Her bill as amended in committee says that, for lawful medical cannabis patients, “proof of actual impairment shall be required if the individual is unable to safely drive, operate or be in actual physical control of a vehicle.” A medical marijuana certification “shall not, in and of itself, be sufficient evidence for a conviction.”
Also, having a medical cannabis card on its own could not be used as the basis to charge a person with a DUI, nor could it be used as grounds to require a drug test.
It further states that nothing about the bill would interfere in the enforcement of marijuana policies for federally regulated drivers operating commercial vehicles or school buses.
Under both the Senate and House bills, police would need to rely on standard field sobriety tests and drug recognition experts to make a determination that a medical marijuana patient was driving under the influence.
The House legislation that cleared committee was amended with language requested by the State Police and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that, like the Senate version, clarifies that federally contracted or licensed commercial drivers are not covered under the protections.
“I take this very seriously as the father of a new driver,” Rabb, the sponsor, said during last week’s hearing. “I also take this seriously for those hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who have drivers licenses and medical cannabis cards, who have no idea that they are imperiled just getting behind the wheel—not because they’re impaired, but because of how law enforcement may view them behind the wheel.”
The lawmaker said that, when he became a medical cannabis patient himself, he “didn’t think I would have any issues” because he doesn’t use intoxicating products, abides by the state’s law and doesn’t drive while impaired.
“I was wrong,” he said, noting that he’s received a “flurry” of messages from medical cannabis patients since first introducing his bill, detailing how their “lives have been turned upside down” because they were charged with DUIs without proof of impairment.
“All this bill seeks to do is to set the level playing field—same with any other medications,” he said. “Otherwise, medical cannabis shouldn’t be considered illegal, but it is. So, one standard. One standard.”
The text of his legislation would revise the state’s criminal code to specify that medical cannabis is not considered a Schedule I drug in suspected DUI cases, except for licensed commercial drivers.
— Rep. Chris Rabb (@RepRabb) December 11, 2023
Rabb also secured the medical cannabis DUI protections reform as an amendment to a large-scale transportation bill that passed the full House in 2020. However, that bill was not ultimately enacted.
Both of the latest Senate and House proposals were approved in their respective committees during the final days of the 2023 session. Members are scheduled to come back into session in early February, after which point the bills could continue to advance, though at some point the chambers would need to reconcile the differing language.
Bartolotta said in a post on X (formerly Twitter) on Tuesday that she’s “very encouraged” that her bill “will be put up for a vote as soon as we get back.”
My bill passed out of committee and is now awaiting a floor vote in the Senate. We will be back to session in February and I am very encouraged that it will be put up for a vote as soon as we get back.
— Camera Bartolotta (@CameraForSenate) December 19, 2023
While the reform appears positioned to advance further, advocates remain frustrated that lawmakers in the divided legislature have so far failed to enact broader marijuana legalization, especially as neighboring states implement their own adult-use markets.
However, as momentum has built, a Pennsylvania House committee held a second informational hearing on marijuana legalization last week. After Ohio voters’ decision last month to legalize recreational cannabis, both Pennsylvania’s governor and U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) have said it’s time for Pennsylvania to make the change, too.
Fetterman said recently that the state is being “lapped” on marijuana policy as neighboring states enact legalization.
Bartolotta as well as pro-legalization Sen. Sharif Street are separately seeking co-sponsors for a more modest change, circulating a legislative proposal that would decriminalize marijuana by downgrading simple possession from a misdemeanor crime to a civil offense.
Meanwhile, Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) signed a bill last week to allow all licensed medical marijuana grower-processors in the state to serve as retailers and sell their cannabis products directly to patients. Independent dispensaries could also start cultivating their own marijuana.
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