Emerging from the Weeds: Led by a conservative senator, medical marijuana is gaining traction in Pa., but can relief come fast enough for patients most in need? | Weed | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Emerging from the Weeds: Led by a conservative senator, medical marijuana is gaining traction in Pa., but can relief come fast enough for patients most in need?

"This isn't about cannabis. This is about care."

The pulpit of a small church in the North Hills is exactly the type of place you'd expect to see a conservative politician preaching to the choir. But tonight, state Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) is singing from a different hymn sheet.

"It's funny having this meeting in a church," Folmer tells the crowd of 100 gathered Aug. 26 at the Bradford Woods Community Church, near Cranberry. And then he gets to the task at hand: building support for legislation he's co-authored to legalize the use of medical marijuana.

"I'm a Bible-bleeding Presbyterian, and I believe we were given this plant and our bodies were designed ... to receive this," Folmer says. "It's all about [the benefits] that God intended this plant to bring."

Senate Bill 1182, also known as the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act, would approve the medical use of marijuana dispensed in "extracted oils, edible products, ointments, tinctures and vaporization or any other medical device." It would require the state Department of Health to regulate use of the drug, and mandate patients have an access card in order to obtain it

"I need your help to get his done, folks," Folmer tells the audience with a raised hand, his thumb and index finger spread about an inch apart. "We're this close."

marijuana-based medications
Photos courtesy of Heather Shuker
For 10-year-old Hannah Pallas, who suffers hundreds of seizures weekly, access to marijuana-based medications could result in more good days (above right) than bad.

Folmer's missionary zeal has carried him during a four-hour drive to a church whose pews are filled not with stoners but with parents and children, many of whom are hoping to use marijuana to treat debilitating diseases that traditional medication has not cured.

"Hannah is out of options," one of those parents, Heather Shuker, says of her 10-year-old daughter, Hannah Pallas. Hannah suffers from intractable epilepsy, which causes her hundreds of seizures every week and cannot be controlled by treatments. "She's been on 20 different seizure medications, and there is nothing else to try."

"Doctors are essentially playing Russian roulette with her life," Shuker adds. "I go to appointments and they say, 'Let's add a seizure medication,' or 'Change the dosage,' or 'A new seizure medication came out; let's try that.' Or 'Let's do a corpus callosotomy' — where they basically cut her brain in half and hope that it stops seizures on one side of her brain from spreading to the other." But with all those radical treatments at their disposal, she says, "They can't even speak to us about [medical marijuana]."

There is at least anecdotal evidence that cannabidiol, an extract from the marijuana plant, can be helpful for children with conditions like Hannah Shuker's. Most of that evidence has come from Colorado, where marijuana use of all forms is legal. Parents there have said that the drug has brought about miraculous changes in children, and in December, the Food and Drug Administration granted approval for a New York University study on the drug's effect on childhood epilepsy.

A video that Heather Shuker made to illustrate her daughter's daily struggles with intractable epilepsy

But the availability of that drug could be months or years away. And that's time parents like Heather Shuker might not want to spend, when the drug is a plane ride away in Colorado, or even a five-hour drive away in Michigan, which has its own medical-marijuana program.

"What kind of person keeps potentially helpful medication away from a child?" Shuker asks. "To the government, I say, 'Legalize it and do your job and regulate it. And let the doctors do their job by providing these children the best medicine available.'"

That's not a new request. Medical-marijuana legislation has been proposed in Harrisburg before, but bills have failed to even get out of committee. Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach, a liberal Democrat from the Philadelphia suburbs, has long proposed bills pushing for medical use and full legalization.

To illustrate why, he cites a parent whose child "was having 50 seizures a day" before the parents bought marijuana illegally. Since then, Leach says, the child "has been seizure-free for six weeks. To continue to deny these dying sick people the medications they need is morally outrageous."

But the moral argument got little traction until Folmer, a cancer survivor with conservative clout, began making it. Folmer says he took a Friday meeting with two mothers of sick children who gave him information about the benefits of medical marijuana. Instead of casting it aside, he took the research home and began doing his own research online.

"I was online reading all of these studies and white papers until 4 a.m.," Folmer says. "I couldn't go to sleep. On Saturday I told my wife, 'We have to do something [for these families]. If a conservative in Harrisburg doesn't get on this, no one is going to hear their message,' because I know what happens in politics."

On Sunday he talked to and got the support of his pastor. On Monday, he went to his office and told his chief of staff they were going to work on medical-marijuana legislation, and "I thought he was going to fall off his chair."

SB 1182 cleared a Senate committee in June, and is poised for passage in the Senate when legislators return to work Sept. 15, say Leach and Folmer.

"It's been a tough battle, because as soon as you inject the word 'marijuana' into the discussion, it becomes very polarizing," says Patrick Nightingale, a former prosecutor, current criminal defense attorney and executive director of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "This bill has been introduced and reintroduced and got nowhere. Mike Folmer's involvement in this was utterly critical. You needed that conservative voice to strengthen the argument. This discussion was no longer seen as a hippie attempt to free the weed."

Adds Leach: "Mike Folmer is a hero."

While Pennsylvania has not always been a haven for progressive policies, medical legalization appears to be broadly popular. A July 2 Franklin & Marshall College poll found that 84 percent of Pennsylvanians favor legalizing the medical use of marijuana. Leach expects the measure to pass the Senate this fall by a 45-5 margin.

The measure would then go to the state House, where a companion bill hasn't yet been given a hearing. Leach says he believes a veto-proof majority has been secured to pass the bill in the House if it can get to the floor for a vote.

But following the June 27 senate committee vote, The Philadephia Inquirer reported that the bill has a tough slog even if it passes the senate. Steve Miskin, a spokesman for GOP House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, told the paper: "Obviously some members support it, but the vast majority of members in our caucus believe the states should not be in business of deciding what is or is not medicine. That's what the FDA can and does do."

The paper also reported that Corbett "is expected to veto any marijuana legalization bill that is broader than his proposal for a pilot study of the use of cannabis oil to treat children with epilepsy."

According to a May press release from the governor, he vowed to work toward limited legislation "that would allow a research-based pilot program with leading children's hospitals in Pennsylvania."

But so far, Leach says, there has been no movement from the governor on the issue.

"The governor has threatened to veto this bill. The fact is, Gov. Corbett has not [been] given to thinking deeply on this issue," Leach says. "He said what he said to avoid a sit-in by the parents of these children. He did it to escape the negative optics, but there is no fierce urgency from the governor to get these people this medicine."


Not everyone agrees that legalization is the best way to go. Kevin Sabet has long opposed legalization in any form. He is the director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and the director of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), a nonprofit formed last year by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, whose own struggle with substance abuse has been well documented.

Sabet says his group combats "the false dichotomy in this country that when it comes to marijuana, you either lock people up or you legalize it. We reject both of those theories. There are better, smarter ways to deal with this."

Sabet says criminal penalties should be changed to civil fines for using or possessing marijuana solely for personal use. He also says SAM is against mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana convictions.

When it comes to medical use, Sabet says there need to be regulated studies about the medical benefits of marijuana and any use by patients with severe medical conditions like juvenile epilepsy. He says such patient use could occur during the testing phase if a doctor deems it necessary. But legalizing medical marijuana, he says, is just the first step to full legalization, and also exposes patients to drugs that might not be produced at the highest standards.

"We think that someone who is terminally ill, or a child dealing with a severe condition, should have access to medications that were produced with good manufacturing processes, and under the watch of the FDA," Sabet says. "But legislation is not the way to go.

"I think a lot of these parents have been used as pawns by the legalization movement, because who can say no to a child who is seizing 50 times a day on the Senate floor? These families deserve better. ... They need to be able to go to a doctor and get something, and not some weasel online that can hook them up."

That argument "really makes your head explode," Leach counters. "If these parents have to go to a 'weasel online,' that's a direct result of Mr. Sabet and groups like his. If this was legal and regulated like any other drugs, there wouldn't be a need to look around online for this. By blocking this, he's fighting to keep the weasels online in business."

Leach says he'd prefer to have the FDA oversee clinical trials and drug production. But he says that can't happen because marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic — the same designation given to heroin and LSD. He adds, however, that during a recent tour of labs and growing facilities in Colorado, he was impressed with what he saw. "This isn't two hippies sitting on a beanbag making this stuff," Leach says. "It's highly regulated, and you know exactly what you are getting."

For his part, Folmer told the crowd in Cranberry that he will continue to keep the focus on individuals who could benefit from the drug, especially the children and families with nowhere else to turn.

"The fear out there surrounding that is just that: fear," Folmer says. "And that has happened because we have been told to fear it for 70 years. And the thing that bothers me most is that we've lost so much time that could have been spent researching this. How much farther ahead would we be if we wouldn't have taken this plant and forced it underground?

"This is not about Cheech and Chong. This is not about Fast Times at [Ridgemont] High. This isn't about tie-dyed T-shirts and the hippie culture. This isn't even about cannabis. This is about care ... and children in desperate need."