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Pa. House committees hold joint hearing on joints

Medical marijuana pros and cons debated

Doctors weighed in at the Philly hearing on the effectiveness of medical marijuana. (MEL EVANS / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Doctors weighed in at the Philly hearing on the effectiveness of medical marijuana. (MEL EVANS / ASSOCIATED PRESS)Read more

DRESSED IN A STETSON HAT with his best girl, Ruby, by his side, wine-cellar designer Scot Ziskind attended the state House of Representatives hearing on medical marijuana in Center City yesterday for his health - and his livelihood.

Ziskind, 57, has a seizure disorder and relies only on Ruby - his service dog - and marijuana to manage his illness.

Although nobody denies that Ruby belongs in Ziskind's life, the little green plant he also depends on, which he is forced to obtain illegally, is a different story.

"A lot of it is reefer madness from the '30s," he said. "I'm hoping that this goes through so that I don't have to keep doing what I'm doing."

Yesterday's joint satellite hearing of the Health and Judiciary committees, which took place at Pennsylvania Hospital, was the first of three public hearings on medical marijuana the joint committee will hold.

While the state Senate's current proposed medical-marijuana bill, SB 3, is in the Government Committee, and the House's proposed medical-marijuana bill, HB 193, is in the Health Committee, yesterday's hearing was strictly informational and will have no direct impact on either bill.

John C.M. Brust, a professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University, testified that there's no scientific evidence to show that medical marijuana is effective at treating illnesses.

"The FDA was created to protect the public from purveyors of snake oil," he said.

Lee Harris, chief of neurology at Abington Memorial Hospital, said medical marijuana has "clear benefits," and interest in it comes as the nation is experiencing "epidemic increases" in prescription-pain-killer deaths.

"What we have then is a critical dilemma," he said. "A comparatively safer drug, marijuana, that hasn't caused deaths, is classified as illegal and unavailable and we are instead prescribing a lethal or potentially dangerous drug."

David J. Casarett, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said he considered the idea of medical marijuana a "joke" until he began to research the subject and learned that there is more evidence to support it than he ever imagined.

Casarett was also surprised to discover that pot was less risky in some ways than he expected, noting that studies have failed to find any correlation between smoking marijuana and lung disease.

"In order to see the significant lung effects of smoking tobacco, you need to smoke . . . 20 to 40 cigarettes [a day] over 10 or 20 years," he said. "Imagine if you smoked 20 to 40 joints a day for 10 or 20 years, your lungs would be the least of your problems."

The committee heard testimony from just such a man.

Irvin Rosenfeld is one of only two remaining federal medical-marijuana patients. He has smoked 10 joints a day for 32 years. The federal government provides Rosenfeld, who suffers from a rare bone-tumor disease, with his stash.

Rosenfeld, a Florida stockbroker, was Skyped into the hearing.

"Because of this, No. 1, I am still alive. Two, I'm a productive member of society," he said. "What I try to impress upon other people is that I have the right medicine. I'm alive because of it."

Ziskind, the wine-cellar designer in the Stetson hat, hopes he, too, will one day be able to get his medicine legally. He also hopes to parlay his expertise in wine preservation into marijuana cultivation.

"I build wine cellars for a living and it turns out that the climate for storing wine is the perfect climate for growing pot," he said. "It's too late out there to make any money in Colorado, but it's going to come here."

State Rep. Jim Cox just hopes that day won't come too late.

"I hope this is not one of the unfortunate situations where Pennsylvania is dead last in helping its citizens," he said.