Pa. Senate hears split arguments on medical marijuana

Posted: January 30, 2014

HARRISBURG Doctors and the broader public may be split on the prospect of legalizing medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.

But the mothers who lined up at a Senate hearing Tuesday to testify about their children's severe chronic illnesses and a lack of treatment were not.

Christine Brann's 3-year-old son, Garrett, has Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy. She said that doctors had tried 10 medications to control his seizures, but none worked.

"Medical marijuana is the only course of treatment we have left," said Brann, of Hummelstown, Dauphin County.

Brann was among 20 individuals and group representatives testifying before the Senate Law and Justice Committee on a bill to legalize marijuana use as recommended by physicians.

Dana Ulrich spoke on behalf of Heather Shuker, who Ulrich said had to rush her 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, to a Pittsburgh-area hospital Tuesday morning.

Shuker said her daughter's pediatrician, Lidia Comini-Turzai, favored medical marijuana treatment for Hannah, who suffers from epileptic seizures and debilitating side effects from prescription drugs.

"My daughter is quickly diminishing away," Shuker wrote. "I am pleading with you all that you vote yes to SB-1182 to save Hannah's life and others who suffer as she does."

Comini-Turzai is the wife of the House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). But just because the doctor supports medical legalization does not mean her spouse would. Asked about Turzai's position on the issue, his spokesman, Steve Miskin, said: "This is an issue for the federal Food and Drug Administration and not the state legislature."

The committee chairman, Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks), said that he was determined to draft the best bill possible and that he could bring it to a vote. Such a move would be unprecedented for medical marijuana legislation in the Assembly.

But McIlhinney cautioned that that day could still be a ways off. "I'm not ready to say I'm ready to do it," he said after the hearing.

Gov. Corbett has steadfastly said he opposes legalization of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use.

One step in that direction could be the doctor-recommended use of cannabidiol (also known as CBD or "Charlotte's Web,") a strain of marijuana made from an oil extract that has been effective in treating epilepsy. Corbett's spokesman, Jay Pagni, said the governor would decide on CBD use "only after the FDA makes a determination on the safety and efficacy of it."

Physicians statewide are also torn over the propriety of medical marijuana.

Michael Fraser, executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, testified that the doctors' group does not recommend marijuana for medical use, but supports additional research into its effectiveness.

"We believe a compelling case exists for a serious scientific examination of the potential medical use of marijuana," said Fraser, but he added, "The legalization of marijuana for medical use is premature and unwise."

The society wants the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to change its classification of the drug, a step that would open the door to more studies of its safety and effectiveness. The DEA classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, which means it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

The division among individual members of the society was apparent during a call-in medical conference Tuesday.

Bruce MacLeod, a Pittsburgh emergency medicine physician and president of the society, said that reports of marijuana's benefits were anecdotal and that existing clinical research was inadequate. He said the drug's best delivery system - smoking it - comes with undesirable side effects.

Lee Harris, an Abington neurologist who treats multiple sclerosis patients, said controlled trials going back to 1979 had proven marijuana can relieve muscle spasms in MS and chronic pain.

"It is reasonable to consider medical marijuana as a treatment for these patients," he said. "It is my view that the reported benefits outweigh the side effects."

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