Republican helps medical marijuana advance in Pennsylvania

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HARRISBURG -- Scan the Pennsylvania Legislature for a likely proponent of legalizing medical marijuana, and you probably wouldn't pick Sen. Mike Folmer.

A Republican whose district includes Lebanon and part of Lancaster counties, Mr. Folmer was named by the American Conservative Union last year as one of just 10 "defenders of liberty" in the General Assembly. His website features a pledge to hamper tax increases and support the right-to-work policies feared by labor unions.

But as of late, Mr. Folmer has become a public face of an otherwise Democratic-led effort to allow cannabis in the treatment of certain serious medical conditions.

He has appeared on PCN, the Pennsylvania Cable Network, to discuss his legislation on the issue. He keeps in his car, for impromptu interviews, a collage with pictures of children whose parents believe the drug could have helped. His office has given other senators a packet excerpting findings -- from the LaGuardia report in the 1940s to the 1972 commission led by former Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer to more recent medical studies -- supporting his case that medical cannabis could help alleviate suffering without harming society. (Aware of the cultural connotations that accompany the drug, he shies away from the word marijuana, referring to it instead as cannabis.)

Though he says he had always questioned why a doctor can prescribe certain opiate pain relievers but not cannabis, Mr. Folmer became an advocate after meeting parents of children with epilepsy.

One mother, Dana Ulrich, who lives in Berks County, described the situation of her 6-year-old daughter, Lorelei, who she said experiences hundreds of seizures each day. Lorelei had tried more than a dozen medications, as well as a highly specialized diet, without success, when her mother saw a documentary in which Sanjay Gupta, the CNN medical correspondent, described how oil extracted from a particular strain of marijuana had helped a Colorado girl beset by severe seizures. The next day, Ms. Ulrich said in an interview, she began contacting legislators to seek changes in Pennsylvania law.

Mr. Folmer, who himself was completing a course of chemotherapy to treat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, was moved by the stories.

"I had some other preconceived notions before," he said in a recent interview. "The more I got into it, I'm going, 'Oh my goodness, I was wrong.' Here we have a plant that we could be getting medical benefits from to help sick people."

He partnered with Sen. Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat, who has also proposed legalizing recreational marijuana, on a bill to allow medical use. With Republicans controlling the Pennsylvania Senate, Mr. Folmer said, he feared Mr. Leach's medical bill would sit dormant.

The pair hold opposing views on many issues, and Mr. Leach -- known for being mischievously blunt -- described his response when Mr. Folmer revealed an openness to joining the effort.

"I was like, 'Mike, you're a right-wing lunatic, you'd be perfect,' " Mr. Leach said. "He agreed, and frankly showed great courage. It is easier for me in my district to take these positions than I imagine it is for Mike in his district."

Mr. Folmer, for his part, says the effort is in line with his philosophy of limiting the role of government.

Their bill is now scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Law & Justice Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, said he wants to hear what medical professionals have to say.

"I would defer to our medical community," he said. "On the surface of it, if it's something they think is going to be useful for an ongoing treatment, then I would assume I would be in favor of it."

Those scheduled to testify include representatives of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, which last week announced its endorsement, saying it is bound to supporting relief for patients not helped by conventional therapies, and the Pennsylvania Medical Society, which wants to see more research.

"There may really be a role for it. The question is we don't really know," said Bruce MacLeod, president of the medical society and an emergency physician at West Penn Hospital. "We want to make sure people have access to pharmaceuticals that help them, but also we have to be very careful we're not hurting them."

As of now, the bill faces long odds. Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has said he would veto such a proposal if it were to reach his desk. Jay Pagni, his press secretary, said Mr. Corbett opposes the bill because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, though he said the governor would be interested in clinical trials from the Food and Drug Administration on cannabidiol, or CBD, the non-psychoactive component of cannabis cited for treatment of children with epilepsy.

Marijuana continues to be categorized by the federal government as a Schedule I drug, those considered to have a high potential for abuse and "with no currently accepted medical use," according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Cocaine and methamphetamine are listed in the next most serious category.

Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said there are no plans to vote on the bill this year, both because of Mr. Corbett's opposition and because there is not reason to think majorities support the measure.

Pennsylvania is hardly at the forefront of the medical marijuana movement. Since 1996, when California voters approved its use, 19 additional states and the District of Columbia have enacted public medical marijuana programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado and Washington recently approved its recreational use.

The inconsistency between federal and state regulation of marijuana has been a developing topic. In August, the U.S. Justice Department said in a memo to federal prosecutors that it expects states permitting marijuana use to implement robust regulatory and enforcement systems. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder said legal marijuana businesses should be permitted to move their money through American banks.

The proposal to come before the Pennsylvania Senate panel Tuesday would allow people diagnosed with debilitating conditions, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma or a condition producing seizures or severe pain, to purchase medical cannabis from licensed centers. It would also establish a system to regulate the cultivation and dispensation of the marijuana.

While the bill currently does not specify a particular strain of the plant, Mr. Folmer has described the virtues of a form, cited in Dr. Gupta's television report, that is low in THC, the component that creates a high, and high in CBD, which has anti-inflammatory properties but is not psychoactive. In the report, it is not smoked but consumed as an oil.

"If every hippie in Pennsylvania smoked this stuff, you would have a bunch of disappointed hippies," Mr. Folmer said. "There's no way you would be able to get a buzz from it."

When Ms. Ulrich's daughter, Lorelei, was 22 months old, she began to experience absence seizures, losing consciousness for several seconds, Ms. Ulrich said. The seizures -- doctors estimated 400 a day, her mother said -- have affected her development, leaving her with little impulse control and difficulty eating and drinking. Earlier this month, she was put on a feeding tube.

While she does not know for sure that cannabis would help Lorelei, Ms. Ulrich said reports of success treating children with epilepsy in Colorado have given her hope.

"The biggest thing is her level of sadness," Ms. Ulrich said. "I watch her every day, and I just feel it hurts my heart to see the kid she was four years ago and to see what she is now. It's painful for a parent to watch."

Karen Langley:, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

First Published January 27, 2014 12:01 AM

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