The times have definitely changed in Harrisburg.
Governor Tom Wolf invited advocates and legislators into his official residence Monday night for a forum on medical marijuana. The event marked a big shift for stakeholders who, for years, were ignored and thwarted by former Gov. Corbett.
Wolf campaigned on the issue of safe cannabis access as well as general marijuana decriminalization. His stance on the issue is the first time in recent memory that any governor in the region has been so strongly and intimately supportive.
Leading the round-table discussion last night was John Hanger, Wolf's policy secretary. Hanger made waves when he ran against Wolf in the governor's race on a platform that centered around marijuana legalization.
The presentation at the Governor's Mansion featured the sponsors of the medical cannabis bill that recently won a 40-7 floor vote, Senators Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) and Daylin Leach (D- Montgomery). Also on the panel were House Rep. Ed Gainey, Dr. Bruce Nicholson, a pain management specialist from Lehigh Valley; Dr. William Treascher, a pediatric neurologist and Troy Kaplan a legal consultant paid by medical marijuana businesses in several states.
Kaplan lauded the bill and the legislators. But when Les Stark of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition asked how long a law might take to get running, Kaplan could give no firm time frame. Regulatory experts in Harrisburg, who are supportive of the bill, have told me it would take at least 3 years to fully implement a program, if the bill becomes law.
Also presenting was Deena Kenney, whose 18-year-old son, Chris, has endured a lifetime of prescription pharmaceuticals in various combinations to treat with a seizure disorder. Deena works with a group called Campaign for Compassion that is largely composed of parents with seriously ill children lobbying for the bill.
Kenney brought up former Pa. Gov Raymond P. Shafer, a staunch republican who, in 1972, tried to get marijuana removed form the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). When the CSA was created in 1970, marijuana was put in Schedule I alongside heroin. Shafer was appointed by President Nixon to study this classification. Shafer's commission recommended that marijuana be federal decriminalized and not regulated under the CSA but Nixon ignored the report.
There were some surprising moments too. Justin Ely, a State Trooper who patrols Northern Dauphin County came up to the microphone during the question and answer session.
"I have Narcan with me," for heroin overdoses, said Ely, but he had never seen an overdose from marijuana. Ely then said that his 4-year-old son suffers from Lennox-Gastaut, a severe seizure disorder. Ely said he and his wife are considering moving to Colorado to access medical cannabis for their son.
Dr. Bruce Nicholson lamented that 32,000 Americans die each year from prescription painkiller overdoses. He said that some of his pain patients already use underground marijuana to treat their conditions. Nicholson said that some have voluntarily given up opiates, like Oxycontin, in favor of cannabis and experience a better quality of life.
Rep. Gainey also offered an impassioned speech about the progress of the legislation in the House.
"If we get this on the floor, it passes," said Gainey,who has held a Town Hall meeting on the subject in his Allegheny County home district,
Some at the forum mentioned the biggest obstacle in the House, Rep. Matt Baker, the chairman of the Health Committee where the bill is currently assigned.
Baker, a Republican from Tioga County, has refused to allow a committee vote on medical marijuana bills. His staunch opposition goes back to 2009 when his committee held the first hearings on a bill introduced then by Rep. Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia).
Baker claims he only wants to allow drugs that have gone through an FDA approval process. He may not realize that aspirin and saline solution were grandfathered into current FDA rules.
There has been a significant response to Baker from medical cannabis advocates around the state. They have flooded his office with phone calls and slammed him on social media. Baker took down his public Facebook page after the onslaught.
Several sources, including TV station WNEP, political blog Raging Chicken Press, and marijuana policy blog The Daily Chronic have pointed out Rep. Baker's deep ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Baker's top campaign contributors read like a who's who in Big Pharma. According to the Daily Chronic, Baker collected thousands from AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Abbott Laboratories, Eli Lill, Merck, Sanofi US and even Rite Aid.
Baker threatened to sue Raging Chicken Press blogger Shawn Kitchen for pointing out the pharma connection. But the question of Baker's extreme prohibitionist motivations are well founded. The Senate has passed a cannabis bill, twice. Polls indicate between 84 percent and 88 percent of voters support the issue. Baker has, so far, told the press and advocates that he will not allow the bill a voting hearing at his Health Committee.
Still, Baker is not alone. Many lawmakers in Harrisburg, especially House GOP members, accept considerable contributions from Big Pharma. And, as Dr. Nicholson pointed out, medical marijuana serves as an alternative for severely ill patients to many addictive and expensive pharmaceuticals. Big Medicine would rather take a drawn out research route where they synthesize chemical cannabinoid analogues into pills instead of offering the simple, whole plant.
Another surprise was from Senators Folmer and Leach, who refused to acknowledge some criticism of their very limited bill from a few potential patients at the forum. Both claimed that something was better than nothing and patients should be happy with even extremely limited progress.
It sounded eerily familiar to rhetoric heard in surrounding states such as New Jersey, New York and Delaware during the last five years. Like Pennsylvania legislators, the sponsors in those states claimed their series of political compromises had resulted in the "best laws" in the country. But the results of limited laws have meant limited access and low participation.
The reality is that Pa. residents already have something, the underground cannabis market. Medical marijuana laws are meant to bring patients above ground, into safe access and a verified supply of medical quality cannabis that is affordable. As seen in N.J. especially, if the program can't compete with what patients can buy on the street the law has failed.
Baker is a professional politician, who will likely do everything in his power to keep the bill under his purview. So he might have more non-voting hearings on the bill, as the Health and Judicatory Committees did during April.
Or Baker could run out the clock into the fall then attempt to amend the measure with even more restrictive language. He would then force his version on the Senate for concurrence against the pressure of the session ending in the fall of 2016. This might work with the "something better than nothing" Senate sponsors.
Still, if Baker continues to dig in his heels and refuses the issue outright there are some options. House lawmakers can craft a different bill and appeal to leadership like Rep. David Reed and Rep. Mike Turzai to have it assigned to a different committee. Or Gov. Wolf can follow the example of Puerto Rico's Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla who legalized medical marijuana by Executive Order earlier this month after the territory's legislature came to an impasse on their bill.
To be clear, Wolf had made no indication of taking direct action on the topic. But he does have several avenues to push medical cannabis through a deadlock in the House. That could include simply re-scheduling marijuana at the state level.
Until then, advocates and Senate sponsors will focus their efforts on the entire House. Many, like Trooper Ely, are already planning to move out of state to join a growing cadre of medical marijuana refugees forced to leave Pennsylvania.
The reality is that even under the current bill, legal access to medical marijuana won't come soon enough for many patients and families.