KCC Has Front Row To History: The Passing of Medical Cannabis and Industrial Hemp in Pa.
Last week was heady, epic, surreal, exciting and a burst of emotions as KCC joined in the hard-won victory celebration of medical cannabis passing in the House with Campaign for Compassion and the other groups and individuals who made it happen.
Erica and I were in Harrisburg on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Three incredible days with emotions welling up so strong we could sense that everything was about to change and we would finally make a breakthrough.
On Monday we attended the press conference in the capitol organized by Christy Billet and Pennsylvanians For Safe Access. After the press conference we hung out with the Mama Bears and other great activists in the Rotunda. We walked all over the building and we talked to House members and staff and had conversations all over the place. A lot was going on and the capitol was abuzz.
It’s been a long fight. The first medical cannabis bill was introduced into Pa. 37 years ago. That bill failed so it was reintroduced 35 years ago. That effort failed as well so the issue lay dormant for decades.
Representative Mark Cohen introduced a medical cannabis bill 9 years ago. Almost a decade ago the House held hearings on medical cannabis. There has been a medical cannabis bill every year since, in fact, multiple bills.
When the Mama Bears got involved and the Conservative Mike Folmer teamed up with The Liberal Lion Daylin Leach that’s when we knew that is where the fight would be and that this bipartisan effort with the Mama Bears as the face of the movement was the winning ticket, the way we would break through the stubborn resistance in the General Assembly.
We had a decision to make – remain neutral on the medical cannabis movement that was happening, oppose it and fight separately for the “perfect” bill or join the fight and advocate for home grows, whole plant and a better bill from the inside. We chose to join the fight and score a win.
It didn’t happen easily. It was a tremendous fight, especially since November of 2014. Hundreds of us were active every single day working on this issue. Every day and night for two years and four months. Books could be written on everything that was done and the whole drama and emotional roller coaster this ride has been.
So there we were on Monday with the culmination of all our work coming to a head. It was tense electric energy with optimism mixed with fears and the possibility of having to do a sit-in or some loud demonstration if they backed down from their promise to the people of Pennsylvania. At that point we had done all that we could have done and now it was in the hands of the legislators.
We came back on Tuesday and the buzz was intensifying. Many of us talked with state reps and the last minute educating was fervently underway.
In the afternoon about 60 of us were invited to the Governor’s office where Tom Wolf congratulated us and told the group that we were the best group of citizen activist he’d ever seen. Our heroes Mike Folmer, Daylin Leach and Ed Gainey spoke as well as did State Senator Mike Vereb who had supported the bill for over two years. Tom Wolf posed for pictures with nearly everyone of those in the room. When Erica and I posed with him I shook his hand and told him, “My name is Les Stark, I’m the hemp historian. Tomorrow the state senate is going to vote on our hemp bill, SB50 and we will be sending it over to the House and it will pass there”.
I gave Governor Wolf a copy of my book at a fundraiser when he was running for governor and Erica and I spoke with him for several minutes. Since then, we have met with Wolf six times altogether and I think he is starting to remember us. He looked happily surprised and he said, “Well good luck! We need it.” Then we posed for our fourth photograph with him.
We trudged the halls and hung out with the Mama Bears and activists and then in the evening sat in the gallery as the House finally debated the mmj bill.
I have to tell you, the House room is amazing. It’s huge with ornate gold decorations and spectacular artwork. It has such majesty and grandeur. It was an awesome experience. I had never sat in there before. We watched from high above as Matt Baker droned on and on spouting of absurd and ridiculous reefer madness with a mindset straight out of the 1930’s.
We watched and listened for hours as endless amendments were debated and then voted on. Virtually all the bad amendments were voted down resoundingly and we could see that the writing was on the wall and the Pa. House of Representatives would pass this bill overwhelmingly. They adjourned for the night to wait the 24 hour period required before the vote.
We came back on Wednesday full of hope and nervously excited optimism because we heard that our industrial hemp bill, SB50 was going to be voted on in the senate. In the afternoon we sat in the gallery of the senate and marveled at the opulence and elegance of the room, much the same as the House room, though smaller just as impressive. We sat through an hour and a half of budget debates until finally SB50 was brought up by Lt. Governor Mike Stack.
Our hero, and champion of the hemp bill, State Senator Judy Schwank, stood at the podium ready to make the case for hemp. Lt. Governor Stack however was reading a quick summary of the bill and did not see her ready to give her speech and went immediately into the vote. He called off names like a role call, starting with A’s but he never got through the alphabet. He called the first few and we heard, “Aye, Aye, Aye”. He called off about nine names and we heard nine “Ayes”. A few more and they were the same.
He called off about maybe 15 names in all and then looked up and said, “Are there any nay votes?” Silence. He pronounced “Hearing none, the bill passes 49-0” then brought his gavel down and we heard that unmistakable wooden exclamation point indicating we won! Folmer looked up at us in the gallery and we gave him the double thumbs up. We congratulated him and Schwank. It was overwhelming and awesome.
But the excitement wasn’t over. We went back to the House gallery and watched the debate on SB3 for hours as one speaker after another took turns urging yes or no votes. The debate was fascinating as we heard from both heroes and villains, with the heroes seeming to prevail.
After hours of excruciating optimism Speaker of the House Mike Turzai called for an electronic vote and we watched the vote tallies lighting up on the big board like stock prices soaring and within a second we saw where it was going. When all the votes were in it wasn’t even close, the House had passed SB3 149-43!
There was a heroic cheer from all of us gathered in the gallery to watch this historic occasion and the moment did not disappoint. It felt exactly how you would imagine and epic victory like that would feel – an intense burst of spectacular emotion, it was like we had all just been saved from death, rescued from a remote island of desperation.
Tears were flowing. Erica and I were already quite misty eyed but when we met our friend Luke Schultz at the top of the balcony he was choked with emotion. Luke has fought so hard for this and needs it for his sever and chronic pain. Erica asked him if he was alright and he said, “No” and that’s when the flood hit. We gave him a big hug and we all just cried together. I can hardly describe it. Hugs all around. We’ve all gotten to know each other so well and we are a big happy family that all cares deeply about each other.
We came out of the exit and stood on the balcony high above the rotunda and watched as one by one the greatest activists and advocates came out of the gallery to be greeted join the crowd and be interviewed by the media that was all over the place. We bathed in the moment for a good 15 or 20 minutes then went down to the main floor of the rotunda, about a dozen of us in the elevator laughing, crying, joking and basking in hot glow of victory.
In the rotunda we ate pizza and celebrated, a mini party and talked. After a few minutes Senator Folmer came down the steps of the rotunda and we greeted him with rousing applause and hugs.
That night a special thing happened. The capitol was scheduled to be bathed in green light for the next night’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Advocates persuaded them to turn on the green lights in honor of the medical cannabis and hemp bills passing. To our pleasantly stunned surprise they did it! We turned the Pennsylvania State Capitol GREEN! All with Governor Wolf’s blessing!
The hemp bill will now be sent to the House where we expect it to pass overwhelmingly. The governor WILL sign it. If we can pass it soon we can get seeds in the ground THIS SPRING! If there is a delay we will be left behind until next spring. Either way, passage of the bill is right around the corner and we will build this industry in Pa. and become world leaders in its production.
The medical cannabis bill must be concurred in the senate and then sent to the governor for signing. They may pass the bill as early as Monday or Tuesday, most surely by Wednesday. The governor will likely not sign it immediately but schedule a signing ceremony soon after.
KCC was not the lead group for medical cannabis. We did a lot and we played a strong supporting role but we are not primarily a medical cannabis organization.
We will continue our alliances with Campaign For Compassion, Philly NORML, Pittsburgh NORML, Lancaster NORML, Pennsylvanians for Safe Access, Northeastern Pennsylvania Cannabis Network and other individuals and groups and do what we can to ensure quick implementation of the bill and to strengthen it and broaden it but that will not be our main focus. On MMJ we will continue to play a strong supporting role.
Our next battle is statewide decriminalization of cannabis as we continue to make the case for FULL LEGALIZATION of cannabis in the Keystone State.
Stay with us because the battle is FAR FROM OVER! We can’t celebrate too much yet because there’s too much work to do. In case you did not realize, there is still a WAR raging against us over a plant and it is insane and immoral and it MUST END.
An important milestone has been set. Pennsylvania has recognized that cannabis has medical value. Pennsylvania has recognized that cannabis has industrial value. Now they must realize and recognize that cannabis prohibition is a destructive, expensive and colossal failure that destroys too many lives for no good reason and it must end.
Keystone Cannabis Coalition is in the fight for as long as it takes to achieve true justice. Protecting patients is an awesome and noble goal. We will continue to fight for the rights of all to responsibly grow and consume legal cannabis freely. It is our human right and we will fight until we win or die trying.
Executive Director, Keystone Cannabis Coalition