HARRISBURG - With the state Senate and the governor on board, and House leaders showing positive interest, lawmakers advocating for medical marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania say they are convinced it will become law as early as July.
"This is going to pass the Senate, and we've got votes in the House by a wide margin," said Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), cosponsor of the bill, following a hearing on the issue Wednesday.
Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon), the bill's lead sponsor, is chairman of the state government committee, which will vote on the bill in April.
"We had to have the hearing to vet what we're doing," Folmer said. "We know it's controversial, but we plan to get it to the floor ASAP."
Though likely to be amended, the bill now contains the same language as legislation that passed the Senate overwhelmingly last session, specifying what diseases and conditions would be eligible and setting up a distribution and regulatory framework.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) said Wednesday he expects to hold hearings in March and wants to iron out regulatory issues before moving the bill through.
"I'm committed to trying to find a product and getting the product to the folks who can benefit," he said.
Gov. Wolf has said he would sign such a bill.
At Wednesday's hearing, testimony by doctors with the Pennsylvania Medical Society, which opposes the bill, drew angry reaction from Folmer and Leach.
Steven Shapiro, a pediatrician from Montgomery County and a member of the society's board of trustees, said the legislature ought to wait for the outcomes of several studies on the drug's impact now underway, including one at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for children with epilepsy.
"We don't know the dosage or the risk benefits," said Bruce MacLeod, the group's past president. "Drugs cause bad things. We want to reduce pain and suffering. . . . We don't want to cause harm."
Folmer and Leach fired back with citations of peer-reviewed studies showing that medical cannabis eases pain for many suffering from many different conditions.
"Your representations are false," Leach said, drawing applause from audience members in the packed hearing room. "It's odd that a group that represents physicians would tell physicians what to prescribe."
Other doctors testified that studies show how medical cannabis not only brings relief to patients suffering from childhood epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and anxiety disorders, among others, it is safer than traditional opioids, or narcotics, which can have severe side effects.
Colleen Barry, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, coauthored a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that compared narcotic overdoses in states with medical marijuana laws.
Her study found the rate of opioid deaths in states with medical marijuana laws was 25 percent lower that the average rate in those where it remained illegal.