Stalled medical marijuana bill may pass Pa. House soon

| Saturday, March 12, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Lawmakers in the state House appear to be poised this week to give Diana Briggs a win in her 2½-year fight to legalize medical marijuana.

Briggs, whose 15-year-old son Ryan suffers hundreds of seizures a day, believes using certain kinds of cannabis will ease his illness. On Monday, the House is scheduled to consider Senate Bill 3, a proposal to legalize and regulate marijuana for medical purposes.

If enough members are in favor, final passage could happen as early as Tuesday. Briggs is cautiously optimistic.

“This is the closest I've ever felt it will happen,” said Briggs of Washington, Westmoreland County. “We're truly trusting their word this time.”

The journey has been a long and frustrating one for medical cannabis activists like Briggs, who represents one of about 30 families associated with Campaign for Compassion. The group has been among the most vocal in pushing for legal medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.

It found success last spring when the full Senate, for the second session in a row, passed the measure. A House vote was delayed as a working group of lawmakers sought consensus among the Republican majority. Meanwhile, a core group of 11 families with Campaign for Compassion set up a “still waiting room” in the Capitol rotunda beginning in November, with lobbying families and photographs of would-be medical marijuana patients on hand.

The process of hearings, testimony, sit-ins and petitions gave the families an unprecedented political education.

“Have I ever imagined this would be a two-year journey? Never in a million years,” Briggs said. “I have learned this really isn't about the people. It's about who has the most say.”

They have battled false perception issues along the way.

“When I first started, people didn't even want to discuss it,” Briggs said. “It went from ‘You just want to get high, you just want your kid's medicine,' and now people are really understanding, truly, it is medicine. It really is another option for some of our kiddos who have no options left.”

Marijuana, she said, cannot be more harmful than the numerous FDA-approved medications Ryan takes that damaged his liver and kidneys, and the Ativan that lulls him into a deep, medicated sleep.

About 20 states have a medicinal marijuana law, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. Four states have legalized and tax marijuana for adult recreational use.

A Quinnipiac University poll in October found 90 percent of Pennsylvanians support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.

Becky Dansky with the Marijuana Policy Project went to Harrisburg seven times to lobby in favor of Senate Bill 3's passage. She said she was struck by how long it seems to have taken lawmakers to move on such a popular plan. The lack of a state budget, which was supposed to be passed by July, became a “convenient excuse” to put off votes on other matters.

“We're looking at 10 months now, and that seems like too long,” she said.

As many as 200 amendments have been filed to the bill, meaning it could change and require a concurrence vote from the Senate.

One agreement that lobbyists think will come to the floor includes a proposal to limit the amount of THC, the psychoactive element of marijuana, to 10 percent, a move that activists oppose.

The proposal also prohibits smoking as a method of ingestion and limits the allowable conditions to get a prescription.

Despite the shortcomings of the proposal, Patrick Nightingale of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society said the bill is a starting point.

“What it does do is create a framework upon which we believe we can build a successful medical cannabis industry here in Pennsylvania,” Nightingale said.

He called Campaign for Compassion “the most effective grass-roots voice I could have imagined.”

Briggs and other families will be in Harrisburg for the vote.

“They have to see pictures of our kids and understand that we are not going away,” she said. “Our children's quality of life depends on it, and in some cases, their life.”

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412- 380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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