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Medical pot advocates speak up at meeting with Sen. Folmer in Export

| Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, 10:48 p.m.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Julie Michaels of Connellsville reacts while showing a video of her child's seizures, who battles Dravet Syndrome, during a town hall meeting about a proposed state bill legalizing medical cannabis at the Export Italian American Club Banquet Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Ryan Briggs, 14, who battles Intractable Epilepsy, holds hands with his nurses during a town hall meeting about a proposed state bill legalizing medical cannabis at the Export Italian American Club Banquet Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Senator Mike Folmer of Lebanon speaks during a town hall meeting about a proposed state bill legalizing medical cannabis at the Export Italian American Club Banquet Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Ryan Briggs, 14, who battles Intractable Epilepsy, holds hands with his nurses during a town hall meeting about a proposed state bill legalizing medical cannabis at the Export Italian American Club Banquet Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Joe Mirt of Pittsburgh pauses while he speaks about his PTSD after serving in the Iraq War during a town hall meeting about a proposed state bill legalizing medical cannabis at the Export Italian American Club Banquet Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014.

Without medical marijuana to ease her chronic seizures, 4-year-old Sydney Michaels will never be able to go to school, said her mother, Julie Michaels.

Sydney, who was diagnosed with Dravet syndrome, can have seizures as often as every five seconds, and clusters of seizures can last longer than an hour, Michaels said during a town hall meeting on legalizing medical marijuana on Tuesday in the Italian American Club in Export.

“Any moment could be Sydney's last,” she said. “Senate Bill 1182 will give our child a chance ... to experience life.”

State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, is sponsoring the bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana. He said research, studies and personal stories changed his view on medical marijuana from one of pot-smoking teens getting high to one of individual liberty.

“We have an inalienable ... right to take control of our health,” Folmer told the crowd of more than 50 people. “This isn't about lighting up. This isn't about the high. This is about care.”

Legalizing medical marijuana often raises questions about whether the drug's availability will make it easier for teenagers to get their hands on pot and whether using marijuana will lead to use or abuse of other drugs or prescription medications.

An April study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found teenage marijuana use did not increase in states with legalized medical marijuana compared to states where pot remained illegal.

And a study published on Monday in the JAMA Internal Medicine showed states allowing medical marijuana had 25 percent fewer overdose deaths from prescription drugs from 1999 to 2010. The availability of marijuana could have drawn people away from prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin, but researchers said a number of factors likely impacted the results.

Patrick Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh NORML, a group that advocates for legalizing medical marijuana, said skeptics should simply look to the science.

“We must put the ‘reefer madness' behind us. This is not a gateway drug,” Nightingale said.

Twenty three states and the District of Columbia have approved the use of medical marijuana. With an unusual bipartisan coalition, the U.S. House voted in late May to block the Justice Department from interfering with states that enact medical marijuana laws.

State Senate leaders here have said Senate Bill 1182, co-sponsored by Folmer and Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, and potential amendments to it are actively being discussed, but many state House members are more wary, with many deferring to the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA maintains that marijuana has no medicinal use, but the agency has approved a drug called Marinol, which uses a synthesized version of a compound found in marijuana, to treat nausea associated with chemotherapy and decreased appetite in AIDS patients.

Joe Mirt, 30, an Army National Guard veteran from Pittsburgh's Carrick neighborhood, said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said marijuana quiets the nightmares in his head and “brings me back to center, brings me back to a calm place.”

“If you believe in a politician that stands behind the FDA and hides behind those three little letters, I think you're standing behind the wrong politician,” said Mirt.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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