HARRISBURG - The heart-wrenching stories came from both sides.
A Pittsburgh man testified of wishing he could have used pot to ease his dying mother's "excruciating pain." Parents of drug-addicted children said the last thing the state should do is join the 13 others that allow medical use of marijuana.
Thus did the Pennsylvania legislature dip its toe into the roiling waters of the legalization debate for the first time yesterday.
The setting was a standing-room-only hearing of a House committee considering a bill titled the Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act.
The sponsor, Rep. Mark Cohen (D., Phila.), said he hoped the testimony would "alter the outdated view of what should be another treatment option for many Pennsylvanians living in pain and discomfort."
His bill, modeled on laws in other states, would create a registry of patients who, with doctors' supervision and authorization, could buy limited amounts of the drug for medicinal purposes. State-licensed "compassion centers" would grow and sell the marijuana.
"The time has come," Cohen said, "for Pennsylvania to join 13 states that allow patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV, or other physically painful diseases to treat their symptoms and alleviate their suffering with this proven health-care option."
Cohen has six cosponsors, a precious few in the 203-member House. In the Senate, the majority Republican caucus has no plans to take up the issue even if the House bill passes, caucus spokesman Eric Arneson said.
Yesterday's hearing before the Health and Human Services Committee came at a time when a growing list of states have considered or enacted legalization laws, and the Obama administration has halted raids on medical-marijuana dispensaries, a marked shift from President George W. Bush's drug policy. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has said his prosecutors will not go after people who comply with state medical marijuana laws.
In New Jersey, a bill is moving quickly through the Legislature and has Gov. Corzine's support. In Oregon and California, two of the states where medical marijuana is legal, patients seeking relief from chronic pain and disease may now purchase pot from hundreds of dispensaries.
Witnesses at yesterday's three-hour hearing came from groups such as the ACLU and Pennsylvanians for Medical Marijuana, and mostly favored the bill. But people on both sides of the issue offered compelling testimony about how drugs - legal and not - can devastate families.
Charles Rocha, 25 of Pittsburgh, said his mother, who died of cancer in January, suffered needlessly from the effects of prescription pain-killers.
Sharon Smith of Mechanicsburg lost her 18-year-old daughter to a heroin overdose in 1998. She said the state should not legislate medical policy decisions.
"We should leave it up to" the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, testified Smith, founder of MomsTell, a drug and alcohol addiction resource and advocacy group. "We have people who are sick and dying from substance abuse."
Rocha disagreed. "They should look at it as a human issue, not a legal issue," he testified. "Why can't we all come to our senses and, if a person is dying and in excruciating pain, let them have their marijuana?"
Officials of the Pennsylvania Medical Society did not testify, but submitted comments echoing the position of the American Medical Association taking issue with a drug delivered via cigarettes.
The AMA advocates more federal research into the development of a smoke-free, inhaled "delivery system" to reduce the health hazards associated with inhaling marijuana smoke.
Governors on both sides of the Delaware are open to the issue. Gov. Rendell's spokesman, Gary Tuma, said that if the legislature were to send Rendell a "carefully written bill legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, he would sign it."
In Trenton, a medical-marijuana bill has been approved by the Senate and by a committee vote in the Assembly, but has not yet been posted for a floor vote in the lower house. Corzine has said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk before the session ends Jan. 11.
New Jersey Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie has said he, too, might sign such a bill if it is revived after he takes over next year, but has questioned whether a previous draft contained enough restrictions.