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Philly420: The unfortunate devolution of Pa.'s medical marijuana bill

A group of Pennsylvania legislators has renewed an effort to pass a very limited medical marijuana products bill in 2015. Unfortunately, the legislation has evolved into a shadow of compassion that could leave too many patients behind to be truly effective. State senators Daylin Leach (D- Montgomery) and Mike Folmer (R- Lebanon) along with House Reps Jim Cox (R- Berks/Lancaster) and Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny) circulated memoranda in both houses this week.

When it was first introduced in 2009 by Rep. Mark Cohen (D- Philadelphia), the Governor Raymond P. Shafer Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act offered a robust program. Cohen's vision for safe cannabis access included dispensaries in every county, a broad list of conditions, allowed registered nurses to be an integral part of the program and had provisions for patients to cultivate small amounts in the privacy of their own homes. The bill's name paid homage to the Republican Governor who had stood up to President Nixon and tried to stop federal marijuana prohibition in 1972.  Pa. House Committee hearings were held over several years in Harrisburg and in Pittsburgh that included testimony from potential patients, scientists, medical experts and even religious leaders. But the bill never came to a vote.

Fast forward to 2013. A group of local parents began making trips to the State House seeking a very specific form of medical marijuana for their children who live with severe epilepsy. States around the country including Florida, Iowa, South Carolina and Georgia were also focusing on this narrow group of patients. The story of children who found seizure reduction through cannabis oils extracted from specific strains of the plant had gone national after Dr. Sanjay Gupta aired a report.

That is when Folmer became active. The conservative Republican is sincere but also brand new to the complex issue. Last year, his original draft bill included ratios on cannabinoids that would have been unreachable in the real world. Potential patients, advocates, scientists and medical marijuana experts from around the state and around the country chimed in to help with a re-draft of the bill. The parents' groups also began to realize that severe restrictions may not actually yield a beneficial program for their children.

Eventually Folmer adopted much of the language that Cohen had originally proposed. The expanded form of the bill passed the Senate Law and Justice Committee last summer. Irv Rosenfeld, a federal medical marijuana patient who smokes 300 prescribed joints per month, testified during the hearing. Senators were wide-eyed as he showed the group his tin of fragrant, federally-provided cannabis in the Committee room.

But before it went to a floor vote earlier this year the Senate Appropriations Committee drastically changed the bill, essentially rewriting it entirely.

Suddenly HIV, glaucoma and chronic pain were removed from the qualifying conditions. Cultivation was gone. They removed Governor Shafer's name. There were massive licensing fees for producers and even new prohibitions. Most bizarre, they removed any inhaled delivery methods: smoking and vaporization. This is the format of the bill, severely restricted, that went to the Senate floor and was passed 43-7. It was no longer a medical marijuana bill as most of the public would understand it but now a limited cannabis products bill instead. It allowed only tinctures and edible oil extracts.

Those forms of cannabis products will help pediatric patients and some other patient groups for sure. Still, smoking and vaporizing is the best delivery method for those with digestive conditions such as Crohn's disease or cancer patients experiencing severe nausea. Inhaled cannabis is also easier for patients to dose without taking in too much. Edible forms of marijuana are only preferred by a small group of patients mainly because they take several hours to take effect. Smoking and vaporization are vastly preferred because of the instant onset of relief and the ease of use.

Tom Wolf, who will be sworn in as governor next month, is a strong supporter of medical marijuana and even statewide decriminalization. He just tapped one of the state's most vocal proponents, John Hanger, to be his policy director. The new Lieutenant Gov will be Senator Mike Stack, who introduced a decrim package last year. Wolf is sure to sign any medical marijuana bill that reaches his desk, which is good news for patients.

But the bad news is that the Senate and House sponsors seem content to send Wolf a carbon copy of the most limited form of the bill. The memos issued this week state clearly"No individual may smoke medical cannabis" and "emphasis of  this legislative effort has focused on a strain of cannabis very high in Cannabidiols (CBD), a compound with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and very low in Tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis."

It is THC that is best for many patients including those who suffer from Multiple Sclerosis, PTSD and ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. By putting the emphasis on CBD, removing many conditions and continuing a prohibition on smoking it means that most patients, even those who would qualify, will likely choose to remain in the underground market. Beyond that the "high" of cannabis is also a great benefit to patients who are often prescribed anti-depressants to deal with terminal and chronic conditions. Feeling good is actually a big part of getting healthy. The positive health benefits of the euphoric effect should not be dismissed or demonized.

Philadelphia's decriminalization of possession by adults will actually offer broader protections for tens of thousands of residents who already utilize cannabis as medicine. They are not waiting for a law to be debated by politicians, nor should they. At least in Philly they won't be thrown in jail or net a permanent criminal record for seeking a safe and effective therapy.

Poll after poll in Pennsylvania has shown the majority of citizens support medical marijuana. Residents are not stupid, they know what real medical marijuana means: whole plants that people can smoke. The refined products, such as extracted oils, are a tremendous additional benefit that should also be allowed. But as a recent expose in the Denver Post found these oil products should also come with strict laboratory testing and standards to ensure a consistent product.

If the sponsoring legislators truly are sincere they should introduce language that is not the half-measure that passed the Senate in 2014. With a supporting governor the legislature should do the right thing in 2015 and seek to protect the largest population of patients not the most limited group.

Chris Goldstein, an associate editor at Freedom Leaf magazine, smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. Contact Goldstein at or on Twitter @freedomisgreen .