Gov. Tom Wolf further signaled his openness to medical marijuana by hosting a roundtable discussion at his Harrisburg residence on Monday.
It included two doctors, patients and the two state Senators — a liberal and a conservative — driving the effort to make medical marijuana available to Pennsylvania residents with ailments including seizures, chronic pain, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and post traumatic stress disorder.
They stressed their view Pennsylvania is on the verge of joining about two dozen states which allow some form of access to medical marijuana.
They base their optimism on the fact the state Senate recently voted 40-7 in favor of a a medical marijuana bill, public opinion surveys show strong support and, in Wolf, the state now has a governor who supports allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana-derived treatments to those with approved medical conditions.
While the state Senate also passed a bill last year, the effort was hampered by the fact former Gov. Tom Corbett, a career prosecutor, had more reservations about medical marijuana.
Still, supporters know they must overcome resistance in the more conservative state House, where Rep. Matt Baker of Tioga County has said he doesn’t plan to allow a health committee vote on the bill.
That lead to a major theme of Monday’s roundtable — to further the education process of legislators and the public, based on the belief facts can persuade Baker, and lead to pressure from constituents.
State Sen. Daylin Leach, the Philadelphia-area Democrat who teamed with Mike Folmer, a Lebanon County Republican, on the medical marijuana bill, said that, if it passes, medical marijuana might become available within 12-18 months.
A legal expert at the roundtable urged state leaders to look closely at other medical marijuana legislation around the country in order to develop solid, effective regulations. He noted poorly-conceived regulations can lead to problems such as “a gray market” for medical marijuana.
He also explained that getting a program up and running entails steps such as licensing and regulating growers and dispensers of medical marijuana. Top priorities should include enabling a strong doctor-patient relationship, allowing for policy changes based on new research, and creating an environment that doesn’t overburden producers.
One of the doctors at the roundtable was Dr. William Trescher, a pediatric neurologist at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. He told of children with severe seizures — sometimes dozens per day — who derive little benefit from available medications while also enduring severe side affects from the drugs.
He cited a study which found a marijuana-derived drug eliminated the seizures in ten percent of cases, while causing a 50 percent reduction in seizures in some other patients. That’s a major improvement for children who have dozens of seizures per day, he said.
Trescher also said the new legislation is needed to allow more research regarding marijuana-derived medicines. “We are still in the infancy in terms of understanding this,” he said.
One of the speakers was a local state trooper who said his son suffers from severe seizures that don’t respond to available drugs. Without change in Pennsylvania, he and his wife will have to disrupt their careers to move to a state such as Colorado, he said.
Many at Monday’s gathering agreed the bill, Senate Bill 3, isn’t perfect. These included Leach and Folmer, who stressed the bill reflects political realities, and is far better than nothing.
One audience member faulted the bill for not allowing home production of medical marijuana, saying the absence could result in high prices and lack of affordability for some patients.
A state official countered it’s important that the goals of SB 3 aren’t confused with an effort to decriminalize marijuana.
“This is not about the high. This is about medicine,” Folmer said.
State Rep. Edward Gainey of Allegheny County said that if House leadership permits a vote on the bill, there’s no doubt it will get the needed votes.
“If we get this on the floor, it passes,” he said.