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Conservative legislator puts credentials on line in bipartisan medicinal marijuana effort

| Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, 10:30 p.m.
Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican from Lebanon County
Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from Montgomery County, is a cosponsor of a plan to legalize medical marijuana.

The revelation kept Sen. Mike Folmer awake until 4 a.m.

Folmer pored over studies and news articles while his wife, Sheila, wondered why he lingered at their computer all weekend.

Folmer, a conservative Republican from Lebanon County, had changed his mind on medical marijuana.

“The human race has been using cannabis for medical purposes for thousands of years,” Folmer said. “It's only the last 70 years in this country that we haven't.”

Folmer met with constituents whose children have epilepsy who heard how certain forms of marijuana can curb potentially fatal seizures. The evidence they provided dispelled his “preconceived notions,” and now Folmer is half of a bipartisan team looking to legalize cannabis for medical use in Pennsylvania.

Folmer joined Sen. Daylin Leach, 53, a Democrat from Montgomery County, to sponsor a plan to legalize and regulate medical marijuana. This week, Folmer, 58, is speaking at town hall meetings in Export and Bradford Woods to discuss Senate Bill 1182.

“This is part of the educational process, to get them to see a conservative who realized he was wrong,” Folmer said.

Supporters hope the bill will see a vote in mid-September when the Legislature returns. Officials with Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said the bill is not on the calendar but is under discussion with potential amendments. The bill's fate in the House is uncertain.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, said there is no plan to discuss the issue. Many members, he said, believe medicines are the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law. Twenty-three states plus the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical purposes, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Folmer said he knew Leach's proposal would need a link to the Republican majority to gain traction.

“If Sen. Leach introduced his bill originally, I was afraid because of the way Harrisburg works, no one was going to listen,” Folmer said.

A flood of advocacy followed. Folmer calls the women who take their children to the Capitol, write letters and host meetings the “mama bears.” Leach said their stories were key to the bill's advancement.

“It took hearings and private discussions to make people understand this is not about getting high,” Leach said. “This is about really sick people and the substantial body of medical testing out there that demonstrates its effectiveness.”

This year, Leach tried marijuana on a taxpayer-funded trip to Colorado, where the substance is legal for recreation.

Gov. Tom Corbett supports a medical research program for cannabidiol, the part of the marijuana plant shown to be effective in controlling seizures. But he hasn't come out in support of SB 1182, which would allow medical marijuana to be used as a treatment for a variety of illnesses at the discretion of medical professionals.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society supports Corbett's plan to allow more research but opposes SB 1182.

When he decided to sponsor SB 1182, Folmer headed to his church. He wanted to warn his pastor and elders that he was about to do something controversial.

He said they supported the plan.

“If Mike Folmer, a Bible-believing Presbyterian who is a fiscal conservative, could step out and say, ‘Hey, this is the right thing to do, this could help with quality of life, this could help with fiscal responsibility, this could help with people getting control of their health,' who could say no?” Folmer said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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