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Corbett backs legalizing marijuana extract to help with seizure disorders

| Thursday, May 1, 2014, 3:22 p.m.
Gov. Tom Corbett will advance a plan to allow a type of medical marijuana to help treat seizure disorders in children, his office announced Thursday, May 1, 2014.
Gov. Tom Corbett will advance a plan to allow a type of medical marijuana to help treat seizure disorders in children, his office announced Thursday, May 1, 2014.

Diana Briggs got an email on Thursday that could change her son's life.

“Please see the attached letter from Gov. Corbett,” it began.

Briggs, of Washington Township in Westmoreland County is among a coalition of parents and patients across Pennsylvania who have lobbied to legalize medical marijuana. On Thursday, with a sit-in planned at his office the next day, Corbett announced he would authorize pilot programs at children's hospitals to give access to cannabidiol, a form of medical marijuana that is undergoing trials to test its effectiveness in treating patients who have severe seizures.

“Is it everything that is needed? No,” said Briggs, choking back tears. “Can it probably help my boy? Absolutely.”

Briggs' son, Ryan, 13, suffers from near-constant seizures, about 100 on a good day and 400 on a bad day. She and her husband, Michael, constantly weigh the pros and cons of new medications against their side effects, which can include liver, kidney, heart and bone damage. When one pill ceases to be effective, doctors say they have no options but to increase the dose.

In Colorado, where medical marijuana is legal, cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive extract, has shown progress in easing seizures in children with illnesses similar to Ryan's. A bipartisan medical marijuana legalization plan that would allow its use has gained steam in Pennsylvania's Senate. But after its introduction in January, Corbett, a former federal prosecutor and attorney general, said he would not legalize any form of marijuana pending further federal research.

Since January, Briggs has faxed and emailed letters to him almost weekly, telling her family's story. So did her 17-year-old daughter, Alexis. They joined the rallies, called lawmakers and distributed online videos. Briggs was ready to bring Ryan to Harrisburg for a sit-in at Corbett's office on Friday, joining Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, and other advocates.

“The last thing my husband and I wanted to do was take my wheelchair-bound son to the governor's office,” she said. “But we would have done it. Because he needs to see these kids.”

In a statement, Corbett said he had been “listening to many perspectives” on the issue. He and first lady Susan Corbett met with parents of children with seizure disorders on Thursday, a meeting advocates sought for months.

“Please know that we have heard your concerns and that I am committed to developing a medically responsible solution for your family,” the letter to Briggs said. “With the Legislature's help, we can make it happen.”

Corbett's new stance does not endorse the Senate bill Briggs and others favor. That plan, proposed by Leach and Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, would legalize and regulate marijuana for medical purposes as recommended by physicians, affecting patients with cancer, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments.

Patrick Nightingale, executive director of legalization advocacy group Pittsburgh NORML, said Corbett's plan leaves out tens of thousands of patients who could benefit. A March poll from Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found 85 percent of Pennsylvanians polled support legalizing medical marijuana.

“We're very glad Gov. Corbett has at least demonstrated some ability to listen to the science, to listen to his constituents and has at least cracked the door open a little bit,” Nightingale said. “But under no circumstances do we consider this an appropriate solution.”

The administration has reached out to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital to start developing the pilot program. Corbett said the program “will allow families access to potentially life-saving treatment and scientific insight into CBD's potential benefits without creating a pathway to greater drug addiction issues in Pennsylvania.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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