By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — May 12 was an exhilarating day for Lolly Bentch, who has been lobbying state lawmakers to approve the use of medical cannabis for nearly two years.
The state Senate passed a bill that would allow doctors to recommend some forms of medical marijuana, which Bentch hopes could help her 7-year-old daughter, Anna, who has at times endured as many as 150 seizures in a day.
The excitement didn’t last long, not after the bill was assigned to the Health Committee, anyway. State Rep. Matt Baker, a Tioga County Republican and staunch opponent of medical marijuana legislation, chairs the committee and told Watchdog.org this week he doesn’t expect to move the bill anytime soon.
“Unfortunately, I just feel like it was a slap in the face to all of us,” Bentch said.
The committee assignment leaves the legislation at a crucial crossroads. Parents like Bentch want another tool to help their ill children, but state lawmakers like Baker are still trying to determine the best way to regulate medical marijuana — or whether they should open that door at all.
Bentch said the legislation will die a slow death in Baker’s committee, where she doesn’t believe it will receive an unbiased examination. The lawmaker sees it differently — that it’s the medical community whose concerns aren’t getting a fair hearing.
“I don’t have any doctors knocking on my door asking me to approve this bill,” Baker said.
The Pennsylvania Medical Society opposes the bill and has called for a cautious approach, a major factor in Baker’s reticence.
The PMA issued a white paper on medical marijuana this spring, saying the federal government’s listing of marijuana as a Schedule I drug — meaning it has no current accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse — has led to a dearth of adequate studies about it.
“Given the known adverse effects associated with marijuana, and lack of solid evidence demonstrating safety and efficacy, PAMED does not currently support legalization of medical cannabis,” the white paper stated, though it did call for a relaxation of marijuana’s Schedule I status to facilitate more research.
Dr. Amy Brooks-Kayal, president of the American Epilepsy Society and chief of the Children’s Hospital Colorado, urged Pennsylvania lawmakers to delay the adoption of the legislation. A study at her hospital found that artisnal high cannabidiol oils led to no significant reduction in seizures in the majority of patients, and in some cases, seizures worsened with the use of cannabis, Brooks-Kayal wrote in a letter to Baker.
“These are not the stories that you have likely heard in your public hearings, but they are the reality of practitioners at Children’s Hospital Colorado who have cared for the largest number of cases of children with epilepsy treated with cannabis in the U.S.,” she wrote.
As long as the medical community has such concerns, Baker said he’s reluctant to support the legislation.
“The other issue is: Do we want politicians and legislators to now start determining and voting on medicine?” Baker asked. “That’s a whole other policy issue. As far as I know, we’ve never done that before. We’ve always left medicine up to the medical professionals.”
That stance has frustrated activists like Bentch, who saw a glimmer of hope with the Senate’s actions earlier this month. She said doctors should have a full range of tools to use in case normal treatment options don’t work, as is the case with her daughter.
The bill prohibits the smoking of medical marijuana, but allows physicians to recommend other forms of medical cannabis, such as oils, ointments and tinctures to treat about 15 conditions, including cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy and chronic pain.
A new state Board of Medical Cannabis Licensing would license medical cannabis growers, processes and dispensers and enforce the act. Between 98,252 and 196,504 people could apply for medical cannabis access cards, according to a fiscal analysis from the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Where it goes in the House is uncertain, largely because it ended up in Baker’s committee. Steve Miskin, a top House GOP spokesman, said the bill was assigned to the Health Committee because it deals with medical issues.
Leach said the decision to place the bill in Baker’s committee has led to some worry, but also thinks “there’s been more panic than is necessary.”
“There’s a lot of ways to get it passed that don’t involve Matt Baker’s support,” he said.
State representatives could use a discharge petition to pluck it out of the Health Committee or have a House member amend the legislation into another bill moving through the chamber, Leach said. It could also be included in the state budget process, he said.
“The one thing I can tell you is there are a number of avenues that are going to be pursued,” Leach said. “We’re going to get a vote on this on the floor.”
The House has already held three hearings on medical cannabis, but nothing will happen until the General Assembly returns in June. Even then, budget discussions could suck up most of lawmakers’ attention.
“The House has just begun its vetting process,” Miskin said.
The chamber looks to be the last obstacle for medical cannabis. In addition to the Senate’s seal of approval, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf also supports medical cannabis and held a round-table discussion about it at the Governor’s Mansion earlier this week.
But Miskin said the Senate’s bill, as currently constructed, would not garner the necessary 102 votes to pass in the House.
A frustrated Bentch worries it’s really in the hands of just one lawmaker: Baker.
“This is no longer a democracy,” she said. “This is a dictatorship.”