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Social-conservative lawmaker fights for legalizing medical marijuana

HARRISBURG - Standing amid the lunchtime crush at the Pennsylvania Farm Show last week was a gray-haired man in deck shoes and a fleece vest, animatedly pitching an unusual - and illegal - product.

State Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) says: "I feel like a missionary. I'm a Bible-believing Presbyterian. I don't even drink."
State Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) says: "I feel like a missionary. I'm a Bible-believing Presbyterian. I don't even drink."Read moreAMY WORDEN / Inquirer Staff

HARRISBURG - Standing amid the lunchtime crush at the Pennsylvania Farm Show last week was a gray-haired man in deck shoes and a fleece vest, animatedly pitching an unusual - and illegal - product.

Like a street-corner preacher, Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) was bringing his message to the people - in his case thousands of voters he hopes will pressure their representatives to support his bill to legalize medical marijuana.

Folmer stops anyone who will listen, alternately delivering a rant against Big Pharma - which he blames for holding up federal approval of medical cannabis - and smiling at wise-cracking visitors who ask, "Any free samples?"

"I feel like a missionary," he said Friday, pausing to pop in a throat lozenge before beginning his pot proselytizing again. "I'm a Bible-believing Presbyterian. I don't even drink."

But Folmer, a 59-year-old grandfather of seven and a social conservative from a largely rural district northeast of Harrisburg, was moved by two mothers who stopped in his office 18 months ago.

They told him they believed medical marijuana could ease their children's epileptic seizures without the damaging side effects of the narcotics that doctors had been prescribing. Skeptical, he hit his computer to find out and soon became a convert to the cannabis cause.

"It was very compelling," he said. "I learned that it is nontoxic, no one's going to die. So I figured, no harm, no foul. There are too many sick people."

He teamed up with one of the state's most liberal lawmakers, Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery). Their original bill cleared the Senate by a wide margin (43-7) before dying in the House last fall.

When the new legislative session opened in December, Folmer immediately reintroduced the bill. It calls for letting patients purchase medical cannabis with a doctor's recommendation from centers licensed by a newly created board.

Medical cannabis growers, processors, and dispensers would be licensed and regulated. Users would pay an access fee and would be barred from operating vehicles while taking the medication.

While the vast majority of Pennsylvanians support legalizing medical marijuana (85 percent, according to the most recent polls), questions persist among medical professionals.

Pennsylvania's association of registered nurses is on board with the bill, but the doctors' group wants to see more research. "Without medical research completed and indicating how to use a medication, it's difficult to support a bill," said Charles Moran, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

Last spring at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in Philadelphia, researchers released a review of studies on the effectiveness of medical marijuana for neurological conditions, including epilepsy.

The review found there was not enough evidence to say whether medical marijuana is effective in treating epileptic seizures. Studies in animal models suggest that cannabidiol - a cannabis compound - acts as an anti-convulsant.

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has launched a limited trial of cannabidiol treatment to see if it helps reduce seizures in children.

Folmer said neither parents of sick children nor adults with chronic conditions want to wait - or should wait - any longer. In his view, patients suffering from a range of illnesses are being prescribed narcotic cocktails of highly addictive and dangerous drugs that have little effect on these disorders.

On Friday, when a brisk but sunny afternoon drew a steady crowd to the show, Patti Bach breezed past Folmer's booth. She didn't need information. She already knew about the bill and voted against lawmakers who did not support it.

"I eat Vicodin like candy," said Bach, 56, of Carlisle, who said she suffers from debilitating chronic pain. "Cannabis could reduce the pain and allow me to function."

Bach, who said her 30-year-old daughter has severe epilepsy, said she had researched the issue extensively and discussed it with her doctor. "He said as soon as it's legal he would prescribe it for me," she said.

Monica Kline, a Harrisburg lobbyist who raises alpacas in Folmer's district with her husband, a former Army pilot, donated the booth space at the farm show.

Kline said her husband, a Vietnam veteran, hated to see returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder unable to find relief. Nor could she, who helps a mothers' advocacy group, bear to see another child suffer needlessly.

"We knew we had to change our booth," said Kline, daughter of former Lt. Gov. Ernest Kline. "Parents were losing children."

The bill stands a solid chance of becoming law if it reaches the desk of the incoming governor.

"Gov.-elect Wolf supports the legalization of medical marijuana because he believes we should not deny doctor-recommended treatment that could help people suffering from seizures or cancer patients affected by chemotherapy," said his spokesman, Jeff Sheridan.

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) opposed the measure as GOP leader last year, but new House Majority Leader David Reed (R., Indiana) was a cosponsor of a House version of the bill.

New Jersey legalized medical marijuana more than five years ago under the then-governor, Jon Corzine, a Democrat. Its law covers patients suffering from one of a dozen diseases or ailments who have permission from a medical doctor and register with the program.

But the introduction was stalled when Gov. Christie, who opposes legalization, took office. Today the program serves 3,400 patients but remains so costly and fraught with problems that some families with sick children have fled to Colorado, where pot is legal.

Back at the Farm Show late last week, Folmer was busy handing out booklets detailing his bill, the medical research, and testimonials from Pennsylvania parents about the need for legalization.

He originally printed 2,000 booklets, but ran out the first weekend of the show. By late last week, more than 4,000 booklets had been handed out.

Folmer says he thinks he can win passage of his bill in the Senate by spring. Still, he said he feels every day he's in a race against the clock.

"My greatest fear is that I am going to get a call from one of the moms that one of the children has died," he said. "I'm not saying marijuana is a cure, but people ought to have the opportunity for help."