Brian O'Neill: Medical pot bill still faces long odds in Pa.

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It's unlikely that Pennsylvania lawmakers can craft a medical marijuana bill that Gov. Tom Corbett will sign, but there will be a state Senate hearing on the subject Tuesday nonetheless.

Neither Cheech nor Chong is expected to testify. This won't be about recreational marijuana. This will be akin to a legislative hearing in Florida earlier this month, where tearful parents implored that state's leaders to OK a strain of marijuana that can't get anyone high but has been shown to stop epileptic seizures in children.

At least three mothers of children with epilepsy are expected to speak at the Law & Justice Committee hearing on Senate Bill 1182. Also speaking will be the creator of the "Charlotte's Web" strain of cannabis that has helped severely afflicted children in Colorado, plus a couple of research guys with Ph.D.s.

The evidence may be mostly anecdotal, but it's compelling. You'd need a heart of stone not to be moved by the video footage of Charlotte Figi, for whom the wonder drug has been named. The 6-year-old girl went from having about 300 seizures a week -- about one every 15 minutes -- to zero or one a week once she began taking a bit of cannabis-based oil with food, her parents and doctor say.

Other families have similar stories, but Mr. Corbett is openly to the right of Sgt. Joe Friday on any talk of legalizing the demonized weed. Even this "buzz-free'' smokeless strain is a no-go until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration holds clinical trials and OKs it, according to his spokesman.

An odd couple of Pennsylvania senators -- conservative Republican Mike Folmer of Lebanon and liberal Democrat Daylin Leach of suburban Philadelphia -- aren't so much trying to blow the governor's mind as pry it open. They're behind the bill that would allow certain uses of marijuana with a physician's approval.

Mr. Folmer, 57 and a grandfather of seven, was a produce broker before he was a senator. He's comfortable with the miracles of horticulture and knows that qualities of one strain of the same plant may be quite different from another. Hence his draw to this product of the Stanley Brothers Realm of Caring Foundation in Colorado; it has almost no tetrahydrocannabinol (the THC that gets one high) but is packed with cannabidiol (the CBD that helps end seizures).

"If every hippie tried to smoke it,'' Mr. Folmer said, "you'd have a bunch of disappointed hippies, dude.''

This self-described "Bible-believing Presbyterian'' didn't seek out this cause, but he talked with the parents of children with epilepsy whom Mr. Leach brought through the Capitol last year. It made no sense to Mr. Folmer that truly addictive painkillers were deemed OK for these kids but the more benign Charlotte's Web was not. All the reading he has done since has only reinforced that belief.

"I want to make sure every sick person out there has every weapon out there at their disposal, as their doctor sees fit,'' he said.

Mr. Leach would like to decriminalize marijuana entirely, but he knows Mr. Corbett would never sign such a bill. Both he and Mr. Folmer say they'd like to sit down with the governor to see if they can find a compromise to help some kids. The lengthy bill (almost impenetrable with legal jargon) could be written more narrowly if that would appease the governor, both say.

PCN, the state's version of C-SPAN, will stream the 10:30 a.m. Tuesday hearing live online at pcntv.com and may televise it later. Mr. Leach, meantime, is trying to get the word out through www.senatorleach.com/sb1182, where the photos of about 20 children with epilepsy can be found along with the stories of the seizures that have plagued them for years. These Pennsylvania kids could see their suffering ease through medical marijuana, Mr. Leach says.

"Once an actual little boy or little girl is there, it's suddenly not an abstraction," he said. "People realize 'that could be my child.' "

The absence of compassion for these children "is not sustainable for a governor trying to win re-election,'' he said.

Mr. Leach shouldn't be too confident. The governor keeps using the phrase "gateway drug'' about marijuana, and never mind the evidence to the contrary. If there's a gateway to sensible marijuana reform, however, then a non-intoxicating use of CBD oil with appropriate medical safeguards may be it.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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