The Pitt News

The state of legalization

By Elizabeth Lepro and Alex Leighton / The Pitt News Staff

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In the Pennsylvania Senate, marijuana legislation is up for reconsideration — but supporters say the bill isn’t about getting high.  

Gov. Tom Wolf has supported an act that would legalize the use of medical cannabis. Proponents, including families and cannabis reform groups, however, opponents say the cannabis bill, SB 3, is too limited. The bill is slated for State Government Committee consideration on Tuesday. In January, bill sponsors Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, and Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery/Delaware, reintroduced the medical cannabis bill to the Senate where it passed in 2014, but the session ended before it could pass the bill in the House. 

The bill would legalize three types of cannabis strains: sativa, indica and a hybrid of the two, for patients diagnosed with varying conditions including cancer, epilepsy and seizures, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and severe fibromyalgia.

If SB 3 passes through the Senate and House, Pennsylvania will be the 24th state to legalize medical cannabis since California became the first in 1996, according to The National Conference of State Legislatures. 

New York was the last state to legalize medical cannabis last July, but the bill left some restrictions in place. The bill stated that users of cannabis could not smoke THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and doses may not contain more than 10 milligrams of THC.

In a bipartisan effort, Folmer and Leach have joined to push for cannabis reform in Pennsylvania.

The senators said they’ve chosen to sponsor the bill because of families like Latrisha “Lolly” Bentch’s, whose seven-year-old daughter, Anna, was diagnosed with autism and epilepsy from mesial temporal sclerosis. 

“Children are suffering [who] don’t need to be suffering,” Folmer said. 

Bentch works with Campaign for Compassion, a grassroots organization that advocates for cannabis treatment.

Among the stigmas Bentch opposes is that the legalization of medical marijuana will prompt further allowances and recreational use.

“I take offense to that,” Bentch said. “I’m interested in taking care of my child, and so are other parents.”

Bentch said she and C4C don’t find SB 3 comprehensive because its revision by the Senate last year cut its list of conditions — including chronic pain— by a quarter.

“There are some days where I’m optimistic, and some days where I’m not proud of Pennsylvania,” Bentch said. “Today, I’m crushed. I fear what the bill will look like [when passed].”

Folmer has an idea of how he wants the bill to look. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2012, Folmer said the law should allow citizens to seek better health through medical marijuana.

 “We can get prescriptions for oxycodone, morphine, you name it, but we’re not allowed to get a prescription for [medical cannabis],” Folmer said. “The whole goal was to give patients and their doctors one more arrow in their quivers.” 

Folmer added that he would push for the “broadest bill possible” that allows doctors and scientists to dictate diseases and delivery systems for patients. 

Les Stark, executive director of Keystone Cannabis Reform, who has been an industrial hemp historian for the past 20 years, also wants broader cannabis legalization along with the legalization of industrial hemp. 

He, along with co-director Erica McBride, formed the Keystone Cannabis Coalition — a nonprofit group to advance cannabis and hemp reform — this past summer after learning about the experiences of parents looking for treatment for their sick children. 

“We’re not just fighting for the children,” Stark said. “We’re fighting for everyone that can benefit from medical cannabis.”

Stark, other cannabis reform proponents and parents who think their children might benefit from medical cannabis met with Wolf earlier this year.

Jeff Sheridan, Wolf’s press secretary, said Wolf is ready to sign the bill that meets his goal — full legalization of medical marijuana. 

Sheridan said he could not guarantee that Wolf is going to sign the current legislation, as it is not yet finalized, but he “supports [the Senator’s] goals.” 

Wolf’s knowledge of medical marijuana and its effect on physical health has been shaped by his two top health advisors, Dr. Karen Murphy, secretary of health, and Dr. Rachel Levine, physician general, according to Sheridan.

One of the opponents of medical cannabis reform is Pa. State Representative Matt Baker, who Stark said is “ideologically opposed” to medical cannabis.

Baker said he wants to see increased and controlled research for the medical effects of cannabis, and aligns with the Pennsylvania Medical Society and the American Medical Association.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society’s position on medical marijuana, according to a 2015 report that Baker forwarded to The Pitt News, calls “for further adequate and well-controlled studies of marijuana and related cannabinoids in patients who have serious conditions,” for which no other evidence suggests “possible efficacy.”

Baker also stands with the American Epilepsy Society, which believes there has not been enough research to support the medical effects of cannabis.  

In a letter to Baker that he forwarded to The Pitt News, AES President Amy Brooks-Kayal said, “We need to accelerate clinical research and wait to act until we have results to support decisions.”

“If the harmful aspects of cannabis outweigh the therapeutic benefits, we need to find out now, before medically fragile children have been exposed to cannabis products that are not effective and may risk damage to vital organs,” Brooks-Kayal wrote.  

Brooks-Kayal and other doctors at Children’s Hospital Colorado provide a paper titled “Medical Marijuana and Epilepsy” to families with children diagnosed with epilepsy. In the paper, Brooks-Kayal states that doctors in Colorado currently don’t prescribe or recommend medical marijuana for epilepsy treatment. Despite a “huge need,” according to Brooks-Kayal, for research, early studies with young patients haven’t been entirely positive. 

Brooks-Kayal wrote that of the more than 75 children, only approximately one in three patients has shown any improvement in their seizures based on parent’s reports. Almost half of the parents reported some type of side effect, including an increase in seizures, according to a 2014 study by Dr. Kevin Chapman, associate professor of pediatrics and neurology at the University of Colorado.

However, she found recent successes in children taking cannabidiol, a marijuana derivative that does not have the psychoactive effects of THC. These cases, Brooks-Kayal wrote in the paper, “give reason for hope and should encourage further studies.”

Brooks-Kayal was not available for comment by time of publication, but wrote that obtaining research for marijuana’s medical benefits will be “uniquely challenging” because of its designation as a Drug Enforcement Administration Schedule I drug. 

Marijuana’s drug classification remains one of the biggest obstacles to widespread medical use according to proponents. On April 13, activists and the general public held a panel at the Hilton Garden Inn on Forbes Avenue in Oakland to discuss the negative stigmas surrounding medical marijuana. 

Among the speakers was Patrick Nightingale, a criminal defense lawyer and a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

At the meeting, Nightingale spoke against “shopping,” which is the fear that patients will use their medical cards at multiple dispensaries to illegally obtain more than their prescribed dose. Nightingale said there is no clear solution to the loophole, despite members of the industry currently addressing the problem.

“At the moment, can I assure you this won’t happen? No,” Nightingale said. “Third-party tracking may infringe on personal rights.”

Nightingale added that legislation is important because more doctors need premission to conduct medical marijuana studies. 

“We need more academia, people willing to study and research [marijuana],” Nightingale said. “These people exist.”

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The state of legalization