It was doctors against lawmakers, science against anecdotes, at Tuesday's joint committee hearing on medical marijuana.
Yes, joint. Twenty state representatives from the Judiciary and Health Committees, mostly Republicans, filed into Pennsylvania Hospital on Tuesday, many bearing grim accounts of ill constituents who say pot helps them feel less pain.
But doctors told the reps there is little proof marijuana does more good than harm, for any ailment. They called for new research funding and Food and Drug Administration approval before a new law is passed.
I was there with one of this region's would-be pot capitalists, Scot "Zippy" Ziskind, of Camden-based Zipco Wine Cellars, who says clients in some of the 23 states where medical or recreational pot is legal want him to expand from wine-storage coolers to marijuana grow-rooms.
Ziskind supplied color commentary, which is helpful when watching government in action. Even if you're not high.
The medicos led with Dr. John C.M. Brust, a Columbia University professor whom the American Academy of Neurology tapped to help scour 1,700 studies and evaluate marijuana as medicine.
The docs found some pot compounds are "probably effective in relieving certain symptoms in multiple sclerosis." But pot hasn't been shown to help other MS symptoms or "epilepsy and seizures, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, traumatic brain injury, post-concussion syndrome," or others proposed for marijuana therapy in Pennsylvania Senate Bill 3, the pro-pot proposal, Brust said.
Naysayers "said the same about penicillin," Zippy whispered.
The bill would enumerate a list of things for which marijuana could be used. But backers noted that the measure failed to pass last year. This and future hearings are meant to build a consensus that would pass the House and be signed by Gov. Wolf, a medical-marijuana supporter.
At the moment, "Bill 3 is long on bureaucratic structure and short on pharmacology," Brust added. The state offers no dosage data, doesn't sort the hundreds of marijuana component chemicals, and doesn't say who pays for treating pot intoxication, impairment, or induced craving.
Reps insisted there must be proof somewhere in the world. "Why are your results so different from what Israel is doing?" asked Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks). He said he's heard "they use it to treat" Crohn's disease, basal-cell carcinoma, and cancer patients' pain.
"Show me a randomized prospective controlled study that shows marijuana is good for basal-cell carcinoma, and I'll read it," Brust said. "Anecdote and testimonial is not research."
"Medical marijuana has never killed anyone," Rep. Jim Cox (R., Berks-Lancaster) said later.
Dr. Lee Harris, chief of neurology at Abington Memorial Hospital and medical head of its MS unit, said his fellow specialists want more research. But he agreed with Cox that pot is a lot less deadly than prescription narcotic painkillers in common use.
"There is a push by the business community to legalize medical marijuana," said Dr. Charles Cutler, vice president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
"Yeah!" Zippy said. "They'd be employing people! And paying tax dollars!"
"Read our white paper, 'Is Marijuana Medicine?' " Cutler urged the reps. The short answer: Not much. (See http://www.pamedsoc.org/IsMarijuanaMedicine)
"When I talk to constituents whose children are having 50 to 100 seizures a day, I think they would disagree with you,' said Rep. Joseph Petrarca (D., Westmoreland).
"How many children will die" before medical pot is legal? asked Rep. Mike Regan (R., Cumberland-York).
Cox said, "I wear a 'Legalize for Lorelei' bracelet. It's for a little girl in my district who takes [a marijuana-based product] for seizures." He accused the docs of leaving kids to "years and years of suffering in order that we can study it ad nauseam."
"Suppose the product doesn't work. And the parents imagine it helps," leaving the parents "fooled," and the kids suffering, Cutler said.
"I can't imagine that," Cox said.
Cutler cited colleagues who said some parents were wrongly convinced pot had stopped their kids' seizures.
Rep. John Lawrence (R., Chester-Lancaster) asked a question sympathetic to the doctors: Does it make sense "for nonmedical professionals making decisions on what should be permitted, as opposed to the FDA?"
With so many states allowing pot and so many interests lobbying for it, "it's hard to push back." But it's the courageous thing to do, Cutler said.
Zippy wrinkled his face and told me pot "is like an abortion: If you don't like it, don't have one."
Do the science first, Cutler pleaded. If treatments work, "we are going to be back here begging this committee to legalize marijuana."
Correction: In an earlier version of this column, the quote about the "Legalize for Lorelei" bracelet was incorrectly attributed to the wrong state representative