Pennsylvania lawmakers are again taking a crack at legalizing medical marijuana, with the Senate passing a bill Tuesday to allow the drug to be prescribed for epilepsy, chronic pain, cancer, and other ailments.
A previous effort failed in the fall. Backers hope that by delivering it to the House earlier in the legislative session, with a supportive governor and a window of compromise surrounding the budget, it can pass this year.
Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), who cowrote the bill, said having a governor who is enthusiastic about medical marijuana "changes the dynamic completely." Republican Gov. Tom Corbett resisted efforts last year, and the clock ran out on a bill the Senate sent to the House Judiciary Committee in September.
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House GOP, said there are "a number of members who support the concept," but they will need time to go over the details.
Jeff Sheridan, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Wolf, said his office would need to review the new bill as well. Amendments on Monday expanded the list of illnesses to cover "chronic or intractable pain," HIV/AIDS, Crohn's disease, diabetes, and glaucoma. But he said Wolf supports the concept, and has promised patients and families that he would work to legalize what they say is a life-altering drug.
Opposition to medical marijuana remains, particularly among conservative Republicans and some physician groups.
Sen. Pat Vance (R., Cumberland), a former pediatric nurse, was one of seven senators to vote against the bill.
"I don't know if marijuana does all the things that they say it will do," she said. "Both the American Medical Association and Pennsylvania Medical Society oppose this bill."
Vance and other critics point to the need for more research and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic with no legitimate medical use.
Bills introduced in March in the U.S. House and Senate would bump it down to a Schedule II drug, making it easier to prescribe and clearing the way for more comprehensive studies. If passed, those bills would eliminate the threat of prosecution for patients in the 23 states that permit medical marijuana, including New Jersey, California, Colorado, and New York.
Pennsylvania's bill now heads to the House, where Democratic caucus spokesman Bill Patton said its chances are good. Even if the bill stalls in a committee again, he said, it could resurface as an attachment in the flurry of bills surrounding budget negotiations this summer.
"If it gets an up-or-down vote in the House, it will pass," Patton said.
The Senate bill passed Tuesday is broader than last year's, covering more than a dozen ailments and allowing marijuana to be administered by doctors, nurses, and patients via a topical ointment, an ingestible oil, a vaporizer, or a nebulizer similar to an asthma inhaler. Smoking would still be prohibited.
The addition of Crohn's was a relief to Susan Love, one of several patients and families who cheered from the Senate gallery Tuesday after the votes were tallied.
"They've demonized medical marijuana for so long," she said. "But it used to be in the canon of pharmacology. We're sort of coming full circle now."
Love, of Columbia, Pa., said her 20-year-old daughter suffers from Crohn's disease and requires anti-inflammatory drug infusions every eight weeks. Those drugs are harsh, she said, and are causing growths in her daughter's liver.
"This would change her life," Love said.
The state Health Department would issue patients marijuana-access cards valid for two years, and create a digital registry to track and verify licensed growers, distributors, and patients.