Sydney Michaels wore a pink jogging suit, a pink eye patch and a feeding tube that sustains her life. With hands folded, she sat quietly on her dad’s lap as he patted her service dog and her mother used a microphone to urge lawmakers to support a bipartisan bill the small-town family believes will help Sydney overcome the epileptic seizures that could one day kill her.
“Sydney is now 4 years old and is stuck on three anti-epileptic drugs which offer her no relief,” Julie Michaels, of Connellsville, Fayette County, said Tuesday at a rally at the state Capitol. “Senate Bill 1182 will give our child a chance — a chance to experience life.”
Senate Bill 1182 would legalize marijuana for medical purposes under a system of regulation and security to be developed by the Pennsylvania State Police and departments of Agriculture, Health, and Drug and Alcohol Programs.
The bill would establish state oversight of nonprofit “compassionate care centers” that would work with nonprofit “commercial medical cannabis farms” or manufacturers to grow and dispense so-called “Charlotte’s Web.” It is a strain of marijuana with strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and weak levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient for getting high. It can be consumed in a pill or oil form or inhaled.
Julie and Paul Michaels — and dozens of other parents with similar stories of heartache and pain — want Pennsylvania to approve marijuana for medical use, as 20 other states and the District of Columbia already have done.
“We strongly urge all Pennsylvania legislators and Gov. [Tom] Corbett to support this bill,” Julie Michaels said at the rally, led by Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, a former Allentown attorney.
Leach, one of the Legislature’s most liberal members, has been pushing passage of a medical marijuana bill for years with no success. His party is in the minority in the Senate and House.
But this time around, Leach has picked up support from an unlikely co-sponsor: Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, one of the General Assembly’s most conservative members.
In addition, the bill has the support of Dr. Lidia Comini Turzai, the wife of House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny. She wrote a letter of support for the bill that was part of written testimony offered at a Senate hearing on the pros and cons of medical marijuana.
“This is a lot easier for me than it is for him politically,” Leach said of Folmer during the hearing.
Corbett was unmoved politically.
Spokesman Jay Pagni said the governor, a former state attorney general, is opposed to legislation that would legalize marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. Corbett has met with the families and is sympathetic to their plight, Pagni said, but he believes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the sole arbiter for determining if a drug is safe.
Leach’s bill was drafted to include tough security measures to ensure medical marijuana would be tightly controlled by the state, Folmer said. Quoting from Abraham Lincoln, Folmer added, “Prohibition … goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes.'”
The Pennsylvania State Nurses Association supports the bill, too.
But Folmer and Leach may need more than the nurses, families and Lincoln to get their bill to a vote in the Senate and House. Medical marijuana elicits as many divergent views in the medical field as it does in the Legislature.
“Medical marijuana is a real conundrum,” Dr. Tony Stile, a psychiatrist from Pittsburgh, said in a media conference arranged by the Pennsylvania Medical Society, representing the state’s physicians.
The doctors on the conference call were speaking individually, not for their employers or professional associations.
Noting that different kinds of cannabis exist and that limited, poor-quality studies suggest a wide variety of ailments for which it might be useful, Stile asked, “What are we prescribing when we prescribe medical marijuana?”
Some people become addicted to marijuana, and since it’s not well researched, the risks exceed the benefits, Stile said.
“Who’s going to be accountable for bad outcomes?” he asked.
But Dr. Lee Harris, a neurologist from Abington, Montgomery County, said patients with multiple sclerosis in medical trials had reduced pain and fewer muscle spasms with controlled use of medical marijuana. In contrast to Stile, he said the medical data supports the use of medical marijuana.
A few medications using some of the chemical ingredients of marijuana can be legally prescribed, the doctors noted. For instance, Marinol, an oral medication made with synthetic ingredients found in marijuana, is indicated for use for people with anorexia and to reduce the nausea common during chemotherapy.
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