A medical marijuana production facility in McKeesport has been declared operational by the state Department of Health and has permission to begin growing its first plants within 60 days.
But in the meantime, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and state Sen. Jay Costa of Forest Hills are angry at U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his decision --- which was long rumored to be in the works --- to reverse the Obama Administration's guidance on prosecuting federal marijuana laws, including against medicinal users and growers.
April Hutcheson, communications director at the state Health Department, told Tube City Almanac that PurePenn LLC was inspected and deemed operational on Dec. 22.
The facility, located at the RIDC Industrial Center of McKeesport on the former U.S. Steel National Works site, is now cleared to begin growing cannabis plants from either seeds or "clones" --- essentially, cuttings from other plants --- within 60 days.
At Wednesday's city council meeting, Gina Rosso, a PurePenn spokeswoman, said construction on the facility, which is being assembled from pre-fabricated units that are being built elsewhere, is not yet complete.
But Hutcheson said the Health Department was concerned with inspecting the portions of the building that are going to be used for cultivating, not with offices or other work areas.
"When we declare them 'operational,' that means they have permission to start growing," Hutcheson said. The facility will be inspected on a frequent basis as it comes online, she said.
"Given that this is the first time we've done this, we are very involved in every phase of the process," Hutcheson said.
But PurePenn's progress comes at a time when the Trump Administration, or at least the U.S. Justice Department, seems prepared to push back on the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use.
On Thursday, Sessions rescinded all policies regarding marijuana enforcement that were enacted under former President Obama, including a policy put in place in 2013 that left enforcement of marijuana laws largely up to state enforcement.
That policy, drafted by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, stated that federal authorities would not stop states from legalizing marijuana, as long as they kept it from being sold or transported into states where marijuana was illegal, and as long as they kept it out of the hands of children and criminal gangs.
Eight states have since legalized marijuana for personal recreational use, although Pennsylvania has not. Pennsylvania, however, is one of 29 states, along with the District of Columbia, that have legalized marijuana use for medical reasons.
Pennsylvania has 17 conditions for which patients may receive medical cannabis, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease), autism, cancer, Crohn’s disease, spinal cord injuries, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Huntington’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and sickle-cell anemia.
But Congress has never decriminalized marijuana use or possession, even for medical use, and Pennsylvania officials have cautioned patients that state law is no defense against a federal prosecution.
Sessions' one-page memo rescinding all of the Obama-era enforcement guidelines says that "marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime," and that federal laws remain in effect and will be enforced.
But according to the Associated Press, the attorney general is leaving it up to individual U.S. attorneys in each jurisdiction to decide whether or not to pursue criminal cases against marijuana cultivators, users and dealers.
The federal prosecutor for the central district of Pennsylvania, David Freed, has already announced he will not prosecute medical marijuana providers who are operating within the state's laws.
Neither Gabe Perlow, chief executive officer of PurePenn, or anyone from the company returned a message from Tube City Almanac seeking a comment on Sessions' decision to rescind the Cole memorandum.
But others are speaking out, including Costa, who issued a statement Thursday saying that PurePenn and other companies had acted "in good faith" following the guidance of the U.S. Justice Department before Sessions was appointed attorney general.
“Pennsylvania went through a very thorough process backed by expert testimony, public support, and legal review to pass legislation enabling the use of medical marijuana here,” Costa said. “The Trump Administration’s move to undermine our policy will prevent children and adults with serious medical conditions from getting the treatment they deserve --- that they fought and waited for for far too long.”
Rescinding the previous guidance issued by the U.S. Justice Departments also jeopardizes banks that have been working with medical marijuana businesses, Costa said in a prepared release.
“Pennsylvania is on the precipice of operating one of the most successfully designed medical marijuana programs in the country,” Costa said. “We cannot turn back now. The Senate Democratic Caucus has been at the forefront of the campaign to create this program, and we will remain at the forefront to protect it.”
Wolf also issued a statement calling Sessions' decision a "backwards" move.
“In Pennsylvania, we legalized medical marijuana in an overwhelming and bipartisan fashion, and we are months away from getting this medicine to patients that need it," Wolf said.
The governor vowed that state officials will protect patients who are seeking legal medical cannabis in Pennsylvania from what he called "overreach by the federal government."
"I will continue to protect cancer patients, kids with epilepsy, veterans with PTSD and all Pennsylvanians seeking relief from legal medical marijuana," Wolf said.
“The Trump Administration must put patients’ rights first, and I will not stand for backwards attacks on the progress made in Pennsylvania to provide medicine to those in need," he said. "We are evaluating the exact impact rescinding the directive could have on Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program but I will continue to do everything in my power to protect Pennsylvania patients.”
Originally published January 05, 2018.