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Folmer: Don't wait for feds on medical marijuana

Written by Daniel Walmer/Lebanon Daily News | Jan 18, 2016 9:34 AM
Mike_folmer.jpg

Sen. Mike Folmer (R-48) (Photo: Jeremy Long--Lebanon Daily News)

The DEA eased restrictions on studying cannabis compound

(Lebanon) -- For years, medical marijuana advocates have called for the Drug Enforcement Administration to remove barriers to research - and in December, the DEA took a step in that direction for the marijuana compound cannabidiol.

That prompted applause from the Pennsylvania Medical Society, which wants to see increased research into the potential value of the drug to treat epilepsy, pain and other conditions. But the society also said that they hope it slows down efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Pennsylvania before FDA-approved research is completed.

State senator Mike Folmer (R-48) doesn't want to wait. He admits he sounds impatient when he talks about his bill to legalize cannabidiol that has sat in the Pennsylvania state legislature since it was introduced in January 2014.

"This is one more delaying tactic, and we cannot be delayed any longer," said Folmer, adding that three of the children that he met in recently years with health problems including epilepsy that they hoped to treat with medical marijuana have now died. "I am so tired of it - the research is already there."

Folmer's bill passed the state Senate in May by a 40-7 vote, but is still awaiting a vote in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where he's been told on several different occasions it's on the agenda.

'Tool in the toolbox'

The legislation sponsored by Folmer would only legalize strains of cannabis rich in cannabidiols and low in Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical most responsible for marijuana's psychoactive effects. The DEA's December decision, among other changes, makes it easier for researchers to modify their studies of cannabidiols and avoid lengthy delays while waiting for additional federal approvals, according to Reuters.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society has called for the DEA to remove cannabis compounds from its list of Schedule I controlled substances - the most restrictive category of drugs that have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

While the DEA has not taken that step, its easing of restrictions appears likely to achieve the same benefit of making the drug easier to study, according to society president Scott Shapiro. That's good news because, unlike Folmer, the overwhelming majority of physicians that attended a society meeting in October agreed that need more data is needed on the risks and benefits of the drug.

"We want marijuana to be able to help all of these conditions - I would love that," he said. "It would be another tool in the toolbox, and some of these toolboxes are empty."

The problem: while there have been a number of studies both for and against the medicinal value of cannabis, very few have been scientifically conducted, he said. In Colorado, where medical marijuana was first legalized in 2000, most medical marijuana prescriptions were written by five doctors because most refused to prescribe it.

Unlike Folmer's bill, some medical marijuana supporters advocate either decriminalizing it or making it legal without a doctor's prescriptions. Those plans would at least relieve doctors of the burden of considering whether to prescribe a drug for which there is not sufficient research, but would leave society without a scientific consensus on its benefits and harms, he said.

"We really would love to learn if marijuana is beneficial, in what way and in what form," he said - something that will likely occur more quickly now that DEA has eased restrictions.

However, many medical marijuana advocates were less happy with the DEA decision. A writer for the magazine Cannabis Now said the combination of keeping marijuana a Schedule I substance while easing some research restrictions is a move that will likely only benefit big drug companies. Folmer said many opponents of legalizing cannabis may be similarly motivated.

"The science is on my side here - the problem is, I'm fighting large pharma," he said.

He can't understand why medical marijuana is banned when there is evidence that it beneficial, while alcohol is legal with no medicinal value and opiates are frequently prescribed that do relieve pain but also have the potential for abuse, he said.

Regional study

There is demand for participation in medical cannabis studies in central Pennsylvania, and WellSpan Health, which owns Lebanon's Good Samaritan Hospital, is helping to meet that demand.

The York-based health system is currently conducting an FDA-approved double-blind, placebo-controlled test on cannabidiol's effectiveness in treating Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, a form of epilepsy. Fifteen people from central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland ranging in age from about 5 to 27 are participating in the study, said Todd Barron, medical director of WellSpan Neurosciences.

So far, the medication has been well-tolerated by the patients, several have seen benefits, and two are now seizure-free, Barron said.

The researchers were required to get additional approvals and must undertake special procedures because of marijuana's status as a Schedule I substance, he said.

"It's very strictly controlled - the medication is locked in a vault behind a double-locked door," he said.

The study is sponsored by GW Pharmaceutical, a British drug manufacturer that is expected to unveil the results of studies on marijuana-based epilepsy treatment later this year, according to Reuters.


This article comes to us through a partnership between WITF and Lebanon Daily News.

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