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Supporters optimistic about passage of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania

| Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, 12:20 p.m.
Young plants stand under grow lamps at the Pioneer Nuggets marijuana-growing facility in Arlington, Wash., on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015.
Young plants stand under grow lamps at the Pioneer Nuggets marijuana-growing facility in Arlington, Wash., on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015.
Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican, (left)
Brad Bumsted | Trib Total Media
Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican, (left)

HARRISBURG — Dustin Himes moved to Pennsylvania from Olympia, Wash., where he could get marijuana legally to treat pain from an injury.

“You talk to people in Pennsylvania, and they look at you like you're a criminal and a terrible person” for supporting the legalization of medical marijuana, said Himes, 29, a contractor originally from Gettysburg.

He urged state senators Tuesday to continue pushing for a bill allowing medical marijuana, arguing it could reduce reliance on traditional prescription painkillers. Washington is one of four states with laws legalizing marijuana for recreational and medicinal use. At least two dozen states allow marijuana use for medical purposes.

Sponsors of a Senate bill said the chances for its passage are improved this year. The political odd couple of Sen. Mike Folmer, a conservative Republican, and Sen. Daylin Leach, a liberal Democrat, want to make it legal for people to obtain marijuana for medical use from licensed private stores.

Gov. Tom Wolf's support of medical marijuana during the 2014 campaign led to optimism among Senate Democrats and Republicans, who joined last year on a 43-7 vote to send the issue to the House, where it fizzled.

Former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett opposed it but later changed his position to support marijuana for treating severe seizures.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society is open to medical marijuana but cites studies saying the evidence of its benefits is inconclusive. The society plans to issue a position paper this spring.

Dr. Karen Rizzo, the society's president, points to two recent surveys of parents of children with severe seizure disorders. The publication Neurology Advisor found that despite patients' and parents' perception of marijuana as an effective treatment for epilepsy, “there is little evidence that proves this is not a placebo effect,” she said.

The American Epilepsy Society, in a position paper, wrote: “The recent anecdotal reports of positive effects of the marijuana derivative cannabidiol for some individuals with treatment-resistant epilepsy give reason for hope. However, we must remember that these are only anecdotal reports, and robust scientific evidence for the use of marijuana is lacking.”

The medical society's report probably “won't be a make-or-break event, but it may be one that can give momentum to either side,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Still, “the chances are as good as we've seen in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Leach said he and other supporters “recognize what an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians already know: Medical cannabis is a safe and effective alternative to the powerful, addictive and often ineffective narcotics that doctors already prescribe to cancer patients, children with seizure disorders, veterans suffering from PTSD and others Pennsylvanians who suffer from terminal health problems.”

Folmer said many House members supported the idea but it was never scheduled for a vote. The House majority leader, Republican Dave Reed of Indiana County, was a co-sponsor of a bill that differed from Folmer's.

A joint House committee plans hearings, said Stephen Miskin, a House GOP spokesman.

“This is not a red issue; it's not a blue issue. It's not even a purple issue,” Folmer said. “This is not about the high. This is about medicine.”

“The times have changed,” said Steven Auerbach, a Montgomery County lawyer who is executive director of Cannabis Growers of Pennsylvania. “I believe we have the votes.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 and

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