Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
At a hearing before a state Senate committee Tuesday, testimony for and against legalizing medical marijuana seemed to orbit one of the few undisputable facts in the medical marijuana debate: a lack of United States research.
State senators are considering a plan to legalize and regulate a marijuana derivative supporters claim can stop seizures, treat diabetes and autoimmune diseases, and even kill cancer cells. Studies of such treatments in the U.S. are scarce because of the drug's federal classification as among the most dangerous of substances. Parents of children with severe epilepsy and other ailments say they don't have time to wait for federal rules to change.
Mark Rosenfeld, a Utah-based Ph. D researcher, told the Senate Law and Justice Committee that he's fled the country to study the medical effects of cannibidiol, an extract of the marijuana plant. "I work in Israel, I work in China, I work in Canada," he said. He objects to the term medical marijuana, because the derivative he's studied is non-psychoactive.
"I would call it cannabis. It's safe to call it hemp, but it's not marijuana, it just is not, so don't call it medical marijuana," Rosenfeld said.
Others calling for the passage of Senate Bill 1182 included military veterans who said marijuana could treat post-traumatic stress disorder and members of NORML, the national nonprofit advocating for marijuana legalization. Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick, sporting a bowtie patterned with skulls and crossbones, noted the controversy over legalizing a marijuana derivative, when he sees the abuse of legal opioid medications as a far more urgent drug epidemic in Pennsylvania.
The state's nurses association also supports the measure. But a doctors' group, the Pennsylvania Medical Society (PAMED), is urging against it until federal law allows for more clinical testing.
"Until further research clearly demonstrates its safe and effective use in patient care beyond any reasonable doubt we urge caution and we do not recommend marijuana for medical use in Pennsylvania," said Michael Fraser, vice president of PAMED. The Pennsylvania State Elks Association's drug awareness committee also testified against legalizing the treatment.
No action has been scheduled on the bill, and Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks) was noncommittal Tuesday as to whether he would schedule another hearing or move to advance the bill to the full Senate. Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery), one of the bill's authors, said the measure won't be advanced legislatively until the governor drops his opposition.
"If this comes to the Senate floor, it will pass. If it comes to the House floor, it will pass," Leach said. "The only impediment right now is Governor Corbett."
Christine Brann, the Dauphin County mother of a young son with a severe form of epilepsy, urged senators to act swiftly to legalize the marijuana derivative. She said other families are moving to Colorado to pursue marijuana-based treatments for their own children, but she doesn't want to become a "medical refugee."
"We had to put away our preconceived notions of marijuana," Brann said. "And I beg you to do the same and look at this as a medicine, rather than the taboo drug that it's been historically labeled."
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