In a major change of position, Gov. Tom Corbett has thrown his support behind a very limited proposal to allow medical marijuana for sick children in Pennsylvania, prompting praise from political strategists and criticism from some families who believe it doesn't go far enough.
In a carefully worded statement issued Thursday, the Republican governor said that heart-wrenching stories from families whom he had met with privately helped persuade him to support use of and research into an oil extracted from the marijuana plant, called cannabidiol, or CBD, for treatment of seizure disorders in children.
In the past, Mr. Corbett has said he would veto any bill that crossed his desk legalizing medical marijuana, although more recently he has offered a more nuanced position, saying he was waiting for the federal Food and Drug Administration to weigh in on the issue. While 21 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana -- albeit in different degrees -- very few if any FDA clinical trials have been conducted to determine the efficacy and the safety of medical marijuana.
"I have been looking at this issue extensively over the past few months and listening to many perspectives," Mr. Corbett said, noting in his statement that he and his wife, Susan Corbett, met with parents of children with Dravet syndrome and other seizure disorders Thursday to "discuss a medically responsible proposal that would allow access to cannabidiol in Pennsylvania."
CBD is an oil derivative of cannabis that is taken orally.
"I have heard the concerns and heartbreaking stories of these families and want to help. However, we must address this issue in a way that helps these families, but also protects the public health and safety of all Pennsylvanians," Mr. Corbett said, adding that he will propose legislation establishing a pilot program with children's hospitals in the state, providing access to treatment for affected families and allowing research into the oil's efficacy.
Bruce MacLeod, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, issued a statement applauding the governor's proposal, saying, "Our organization is in full support of medical research and believe this is a better route than legislating medical treatment."
The proposal followed a hectic week at the state Capitol. On Monday, Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, one of two sponsors of a different bill legalizing the use of medical marijuana by patients as recommended by their physicians, stood on the rotunda steps and threatened to lead a sit-in at Mr. Corbett's office with families until the governor discussed the matter with them, "even if it meant being dragged away by police. The children, their parents, and I were willing to risk that to get sick children the proper medicine they need."
Corbett officials denied that the threat by Mr. Leach, who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 13th District, had any role in the governor's decision, noting that Mr. Corbett had been meeting with families for months.
Politically, the move is "a win-win for the governor," said Republican media strategist Charles Gerow.
"I think it's a really good move on the part of Gov. Corbett, both for families with children who are suffering and a smart political move that shows he's a compassionate, sensible leader who isn't stuck in a rut hanging on to old views," Mr. Gerow said. "I honestly believe he did this because it's the right thing to do, not because it's politically popular."
Recent polls have shown a dramatic shift in support for medical marijuana, noted Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. According to a January poll, 85 percent of Pennsylvanians support it, with majorities in Democratic and Republican parties.
Mr. Corbett's four Democratic opponents in this fall's general election support the legalization of medical marijuana and the decriminalization of small amounts of non-medical marijuana.
"This puts him on safe ground," said Mr. Madonna, who noted that Mr. Corbett's approval numbers remain perilously low. "He's got to be a conservative, but he also has to broaden his appeal in a very tough fiscal environment for him, so this is the kind of issue that allows him to support something that's very popular."
But several families with children who suffer from seizures expressed disappointment at the limits of the governor's proposal.
"This does not help," said Danielle McGurk of Beaver Falls, who has four children, two of whom -- Leah, 12, and Olivia, 9 -- have Dravet syndrome, a rare disease that causes severe seizures.
Ms. McGurk has been trying to wean her children off powerful prescription drugs, including Valium and Atavan, but CBD will not be effective in preventing seizures, while other forms of marijuana might help more.
"He's still making THC and other components in marijuana illegal," she said, ingredients that are much more helpful in weaning children off of powerful prescription drugs," she said, adding that "a very small amount of THC doesn't make you high."
Another parent, Amy Houk, recently moved to Colorado from New Castle with her son Cameron, 6, who has severe intractable epilepsy, to take advantage of "Charlotte's Web," a form of CBD extracted from a special strain of marijuana believed to reduce epileptic seizures in children.
Little research has been done on its medical benefits, "and I know it's not going to work for everyone, but I don't think I should have to leave my home state to be able to help my children," she said.
Mackenzie Carpenter: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1949 or on Twitter @MackenziePG. First Published May 1, 2014 3:18 PM