By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
Pennsylvania is one step closer to legalizing medical marijuana, but time is running short for the legislation this year.
The state Senate approved a medical marijuana bill in a 43-7 vote on Wednesday, sending the bill toward an uncertain future in the state House. Regardless of what happens between now and the end of the legislative session in November, senators on both sides of the aisle celebrated the historic vote — the first time in state history either chamber approved a bill to allow the chronically ill to access cannabis as part of their treatment.
The bill would legalize consumable forms of medical marijuana such as oils, edibles and tinctures but does not legalize smoking or vaporized forms of the drug. It would allow up to 60 licenses for growers and up to 130 licenses for distributors.
“This is going to do a lot of good for a lot of people,” said state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery. “It is cruel and heartless to deny people the best medicine that is available to treat whatever condition they have, as decided by a doctor.”
Leach had introduced medical marijuana legislation in previous sessions — and also offered bills to fully legalize the drug in Pennsylvania — but finally scored success after a sustained effort to persuade majority Republicans medical marijuana has merit.
The bill’s success in the state Senate was the result of an unlikely political alliance between Leach, one of the chamber’s most progressive voices, and state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, known as one of the most conservative members.
Folmer has acknowledged he was originally opposed to legalization until he began studying the issue a few years ago.
“We’ve come a long way from where we started, but we can help people with this bill — people who previously had no hope,” said Folmer.
Both senators gave credit to a group of advocates known as “The Moms” for their efforts to persuade lawmakers.
Members of the group spoke at a hearing in January, giving emotional testimony about the difficulties of treating their children, who suffer from a variety of neurological diseases. Some have risked arrest and imprisonment by obtaining marijuana from the black market or from states where it’s legal to treat their children in Pennsylvania.
“I would like the opportunity to try medical cannabis for my son’s seizures, but I can’t because there are outdated laws that prevent me from doing so,” said Deena Keeney, whose son Christopher suffers from hundreds of seizures each week because of a rare neurological condition.
Kenney doesn’t know whether medical marijuana would improve her son’s condition, but she knows it won’t damage his kidneys, turn his skin blue or cause blindness — all potential side effects of legal pharmaceutical drugs Kenney has used in one failed effort after another to bring Christopher’s condition under control.
Even after the powerful testimony from Keeney and others, the bill seemed stalled in the state Senate. Changes made by the Appropriations Committee on Monday gave it new life and it sailed through the upper chamber later in the week.
Those changes included limiting how the medical marijuana could be consumed and the list of diseases eligible for a pot prescription.
As passed by the Senate on Wednesday, people suffering from cancer, epilepsy, seizures, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, MS, PTSD and other brain and neurological diseases would be eligible for medical marijuana.
An earlier version of the bill would have allowed those suffering from glaucoma, AIDS, diabetes and recurring migraines to obtain the drug. Those were removed from the bill on Monday, when senators also struck language that would have allowed vaporization and smoking as treatment options, leaving only consumable forms of cannabis in the legislation.
Even with those limitations, an expected 250,000 Pennsylvanians would sign up for a medical marijuana license, according to an analysis from the Senate Appropriations Committee. To obtain cannabis, consumers would have to pay $100 for a special license.
Polls indicate a vast majority of Pennsylvanians — as much as 85 percent in one recent survey — support the legalization of medical marijuana.
Gov. Tom Corbett has voiced tentative support for the bill, as well, but there are no guarantees it will reach his desk.
In the House, the bill will be referred to a committee and will be the subject of at least one hearing, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.
“House members, as well as the general public, need to understand what is in this bill,” Miskin said. Some Republicans have concerns about the bill’s creation of a new state agency to oversee and license growers and distributors, he added.
Most House Democrats support the bill and want to see it pass before the end of the session, said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.
“This is a work in progress to help as many as we can,” Folmer said Wednesday. “We have momentum and can build on the firm foundation we’ve laid.”
Boehm can be reached at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.