It's no surprise that a state bill to legalize the medical use of marijuana would have a lot of hurdles to clear before Harrisburg legislators even vote on it. But the first challenge, perhaps, is getting people to take the issue seriously.
"The first comments that were made when we introduced this were about the Grateful Dead and Cheech & Chong," says Leon Czikowsky, a legislative researcher for state Rep. Mark Cohen (D- Philadelphia), who introduced a bill legalizing the medical use of pot in April. "We've got a long way to go.
"We've dealt with a lot of health-care issues in the past, and seen a lot of people in pain," Czikowsky adds. "This is an option that should be available."
HB 1393, also known as the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, was cosponsored by an additional six representatives, all Democrats and mostly based in the Philadelphia area. The bill would allow for the use of marijuana by Pennsylvanians with conditions like HIV/AIDS, cancer and other chronic ailments. Marijuana reputedly can ease nausea, symptoms of glaucoma and other debilitating conditions.
Under the bill, patients who obtained the approval of their physician would be registered to use the drug. Registered patients could cultivate up to six plants and possess an ounce of pot. The drug could also be purchased from state-run "compassion centers"; state and local sales taxes would still apply.
The bill notes that more than a dozen other states -- including Alaska, California, Maine, Montana and New Mexico -- permit the medical use of marijuana. But in Pennsylvania, says Czikowsky, the process is merely at "the beginning stage."
It took an early step on Dec. 2, at a hearing held by the House Health and Human Services Committee, in Harrisburg. It was the first in a series of legislative hearings that will be taking place around the state (though no further hearings have been scheduled so far).
Most of the testimony at the hearing was in favor of the bill, with witnesses who included patients, physicians, doctors, addiction counselors, attorneys, the prosecuted ... and a rabbi.
"Jewish values and ethics unequivocally support passage of HB 1393," testified Rabbi Eric Cytryn, of Harrisburg's Beth El Temple. Cytryn, a member of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, also noted that in Israel, medical marijuana is already legal. Another JSPAN member, former Montgomery County Commissioner Ruth Damsker, told officials she wished medical marijuana had been available for her late husband during his chemo. An emergency-room physician, Howard Swidler, called it "shameful" to "allow politics to interfere with the natural progress of science."
Not surprisingly, reps from NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and the American Civil Liberties Union also declared support. NORML also has a Web site dedicated to the bill: www.pa4mmj.org.
But not everyone was in favor of the bill.
"This is the story of a mother," began Sharon Smith, founder of MomsTell, an organization that works on issues related to drug abuse. Smith described a harrowing downward spiral of drug addiction that trapped her two children -- a vicious cycle she says began with marijuana.
"For my daughter, [marijuana usage] led to death," Smith said. "For my son, he became bipolar."
Supporters of the bill point out there is little evidence supporting such connections. Edward Pane, who heads a substance-abuse treatment and education center in Hazelton, Pa., agreed. His work experience suggested that in 80 percent of cases, the gateway drug was alcohol, said Pane, who called himself a "staunch supporter of medical marijuana."
Others, meanwhile, testified to the problems the medicinal use of marijuana could solve. Pittsburgh resident Charles Rocha, for example, testified that his mother died in January from what began as breast cancer, then spread to her bones and spine. After describing the effects of the disease, and of the chemicals used to treat it, he recounted waking in the middle of the night to the sound of her screams.
"My mother didn't want me to have to break the law, but I would have done anything to help her," Rocha said. "There shouldn't be a law to break."