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Pa. senators hear all sides of medical marijuana debate

Patrick Nightingale calls Pennsylvania “the hinterlands of marijuana reform.”

But Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh NORML and a criminal defense attorney, found himself at center stage in Harrisburg on Tuesday as one of nearly a dozen people testifying at a Senate Law and Justice Committee hearing on the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act.

It was the first legislative discussion of medical marijuana since December 2009, when there was a majority of Democrats in the House. Republicans took control in 2010.

Committee Chairman Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks County, said he called the hearing to gather more information about the “growing trend” of legalizing cannabis for medical purposes.

Nightingale said it was a big step. Pennsylvania’s legislative process does not allow a bill to move forward if a committee chair does not want to discuss it or call it up for a vote.

“We’ve got a bill that 80 percent of Pennsylvanians support, and someone is going to simply say, ‘I am not going to permit that to proceed,’ ” said Nightingale, citing a 2010 Franklin & Marshall College poll on medical marijuana. “I hardly believe that is part of the democratic process.”

Medical marijuana is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Washington and Colorado voters approved referendums legalizing recreational use.

Gov. Tom Corbett has said he would not sign a bill legalizing medical cannabis without further research from the Food and Drug Administration. But Tuesday’s testimony, which featured cannabis researchers and potential medical marijuana patients and their families, appeared to change minds.

During the hearing, Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, said he entered the hearing as a skeptic with concerns about drug abuse. After hearing from researchers, he said he’d co-sponsor the bill, drawing applause from the hearing’s audience.

“This has been very enlightening,” he said. “I am certainly moved by facts.”

Minority Chairman Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, who favors decriminalizing marijuana, said the hearing on the bipartisan bill was a step forward.

“I think there’s growing support among my colleagues regardless of party persuasion or what their own personal beliefs are or where they yield from,” Ferlo said.

Mike Fraser, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, told the Senate committee the issue is “extremely controversial” within the medical community. However, physicians would like to see the federal government reclassify the drug to allow more research.

“We want to focus the discussion on building a better body of evidence that allows physicians and other providers to make science-based decisions about the use of marijuana in the treatment of their patients,” Fraser said.

Josh Stanley, a founding member of Colorado-based medical marijuana nonprofit Realm of Caring, called Pennsylvania’s proposal, “the best bill I’ve ever seen” as far as the regulation, distribution and licensing of medical marijuana. His organization makes strains of marijuana designed to treat illnesses without the psychoactive element of THC, shown to lessen seizures in children with intractable epilepsy.

“Illness doesn’t stop with elephants or with donkeys,” Stanley said, referring to the political debate. “It doesn’t care.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].


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