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? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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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."

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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.

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