A Pennsylvania House committee in Harrisburg held the first hearing ever on medical marijuana in the Keystone State today. The hearing, which featured a raft of supportive witnesses, sparked interest and questioning from legislators and left medical marijuana advocates optimistic.
PA night of candlelight vigils for medical marijuana, July 2009 (courtesy HempNews)
The hearing before the House Health and Human Services Committee was on HB 1393
, introduced by Rep. Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia). The bill would provide immunity from arrest for patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses who have a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana and a registration ID card. Patients could possess an ounce of marijuana and up to six plants. The bill also provides for state-licensed compassion centers which could sell marijuana to patients. Such sales would be subject to state and local sales taxes.
Witnesses included patients, medical marijuana advocates, physicians, attorneys, and a rabbi. It wasn't completely one-sided -- there to testify against the bill were the Pennsylvania Elks and a woman who lost a daughter to a drug overdose.
Some witness testimony tugged heart strings. In one such moment, Charles Rocha, who had travelled from Pittsburgh, told legislators how, at age 24, he obtained medical marijuana for his breast cancer-ridden mother and how it helped her get through end of life hospice care.
But Sharon Smith gave an equally emotion-laden presentation. Smith, who started a drug-treatment advocacy group after her daughter's death from a heroin overdose in 1998, worried that allowing medicinal use of marijuana would lead to drug abuse and addiction, citing supposed "abuses" that have occurred in other medical marijuana states.
Smith also said legislators shouldn't be the ones deciding whether any given substance is a medicine. "Let the medical experts decide, not the legislators," she told the committee.
Smith's concern about abuse potential was addressed head-on by Edward Pane, CEO of Serento Gardens Alcoholism and Drug Services, Inc. in Hazleton. He told the committee that the gateway theory had been discredited and that patients given small amounts of marijuana were unlikely to develop a physical dependency.
"Concerns that the medical use of marijuana will spur individuals into the world of chemical addiction are baseless," said Pane, a part-time instructor on addictions studies at the University of Scranton.
HIV sufferer Brad Walter of Larksville told the committee he smoked marijuana four or five times a day to alleviate gastrointestinal distress from the 14 pills he takes each day for his diseases. Walter said he obtained marijuana on the black market because nothing else, including Marinol, worked as well.
Also appearing before the committee was a delegation from the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, including Dr. Howard Swidler, MD, Chief of Emergency Medicine at Warren Hospital, Conservative Rabbi Eric Cytryn of Harrisburg, and former Montgomery County Commissioner Ruth Damsker, whose husband died of brain cancer. The trio packed a punch, and legislators were especially intrigued by Swidler's testimony, interrupting him frequently with questions.
"Marijuana is non-addicting," Dr. Swidler bluntly avowed. "There is no physical dependence or physical withdrawal associated with its use. It is, from a practical standpoint, non-toxic. Marijuana is safer by some measures than any other drug," he told the committee. "There is simply no known quantity of marijuana capable of killing a person."
Saying she wanted to address a "common myth" that medical marijuana is a stalking horse for legalization, Damsker said: "This bill is about people like my late husband, Dr. Jeffrey Damsker, who could have benefited from medical marijuana while undergoing chemotherapy for a malignant brain tumor. This bill is about a better quality of life for Pennsylvania patients. This bill is about compassion, and it's about science."
"I am here to state that Jewish values and ethics unequivocally support passage of HB 1393," said Rabbi Citron.
While the committee Democrats were generally supportive, that wasn't the case with Republican committee co-chair Rep. Matt Baker (R-Wellsboro), who said that federal health officials had found little evidence of marijuana's medical benefits and that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. "I can't support the legalizing of medical marijuana," he said.
Similarly, Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett, who is running for his party's gubernatorial nomination, objected. In a letter to the committee, Corbett said the measure would weaken existing drug laws and make a dangerous substance more available.
With Republicans in control of the state Senate, the bill's immediate prospects are cloudy. Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Lawrence) have said Senate Republicans have no intention of moving on the bill even if were to pass the Democratically-controlled House.
But even a House vote is a ways off. Committee Chairman Frank Oliver (D-Philadelphia) said he plans to hold hearings across the state before taking a committee vote.
Still, after the session, supporters were stoked. "It was a great hearing," said Rep. Cohen, the bill's sponsor. "We moved the bill forward dramatically. There was a lot of thoughtful testimony."
"I feel very positive," said Chris Goldstein of Pennsylvanians for Medical Marijuana, which has led the campaign in the Keystone Stone. "This was the first medical marijuana hearing ever in Pennsylvania, and the legislators asked a lot of good questions. This was a non-voting hearing, and we still had 18 of 26 committee members show up, and they extended the hearing an hour past when it was supposed to end."
That the bill managed to get a hearing at all was a good sign, Goldstein said. "The legislature has been wrapped up dealing with the budget crisis, and there is a lot of stuff that isn't even going to get heard. That there were hearings at all says a lot. And, frankly, we look forward to having hearings all across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
"Getting a hearing is always important, particularly in a state without a lot of progress before," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), whose Bob Ceppecchio testified at the hearing. "It has generated a lot of press interest, and even if a bill isn't going to pass immediately, the educational process takes a huge leap when you start airing the issue in this kind of official forum."
"This will inevitably succeed," said addiction specialist Pane. "On one side, we have overwhelming support and the scientific evidence, and on the other side, hyperbole."
Pane said he thought he had gotten through the hostility of Republican co-chair Baker when he reminded legislators about how they struggled to get drug treatment resources. "People are not endangered by marijuana being in the hands of doctors, but they don't give you the resources to keep it out of the hands of 12-year-olds."
"I think this has a realistic chance of passing in 2010," said Goldstein. "Progress has been lightning-fast so far. We just started talking about a bill in March, it got introduced in April, it was supposed to have a hearing in September, but the budget crisis happened. A lot of important issues are getting dealt with, but medical marijuana got a hearing today."