Catching up with the Commonwealth: Where Medical Marijuana Stands in PA

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Pennsylvania, The Keystone State, has been less than affectionately known as “The Hinterlands of Cannabis Reform” has some been witness to some important developments that could change the state’s approach to cannabis.

Pennsylvanian’s Compassionate Use Act, Senate Bill 1182, enjoys widespread bi-partisan support as it moves to the Appropriations Committee and, with just a little good luck, to the Senate Floor next Wednesday. Senate Bill 1182 has succeeded where other reform efforts have stalled primarily because of the “odd couple” sponsors – liberal lion Sen. Daylin Leach and his conservative champion colleague Sen. Mike Folmer. Sen. Leach gamely introduced cannabis reform bills only to see them die in Committee.

This changed in the fall of 2013 when a few mothers of critically ill children suffering from severe epilepsy and seizures walked in to Sen. Folmer’s Office in Lebanon County, PA. Sen. Folmer was skeptical, but agreed to review the materials they left him, which included CNN’s special with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and featuring Charlotte Figi, the Colorado girl who’s severe seizures were effectively treated with a high CBD oil extract. Sen. Folmer spent an entire weekend researching, learning and quickly realizing that he’d been lied to for so many years about cannabis. He prayed with his pastor the next morning and decided to not only support medicinal cannabis but to champion the cause.

Senate Bill 1182 was introduced by Senators Folmer and Leach in November, 2013. Patients were skeptical, fearing a CBD only “compromise” bill which could pass PA’s very conservative state legislature. But, as Josh Stanley testified at a January, 2014, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, SB 1182 was one of the best and most comprehensive bills he’s seen introduced in any state legislature. The Judiciary Committee voted 11 – 0 (six republicans and 5 democrats) to advance the bill to the Senate floor. But, as Senator Folmer said at a September 15, 2014, Rally in Harrisburg “its late in the 4th quarter, the clock is running, but we have the ball and we control the line of scrimmage. We have to execute and not make mistakes. We can get this done in 2014!”

The hurdles facing medicinal cannabis in Pennsylvania remain substantial. Once the bill passes the Senate, where Sen. Folmer counts 45 of 50 votes in favor (90%!) it must then go to the House for consideration. Speaker of the House Mike Turzai has expressed concern that the bill was expected to move straight to the House floor without Committee hearings. Patients and activists welcome Committee hearings, as every hearing just garners more and more support after legislators listen to parents, veterans, legal and medical experts and are forced to confront their own misconceptions. But there are only a handful of “working days” left for the PA Legislature before the 2014 legislative session ends. If the bill does not pass both houses it will need to be reintroduced in 2015 and the process begun anew.

Pennsylvania patients are desperate for legislative action. The “Momma Bears” are a group of mothers and families whose children suffer from the most severe forms of epilepsy. Hailing from across the Keystone State, they have galvanized their elected representatives with their heartbreaking stories of endless seizures, life flights, emergency rooms and the ever present fear that their child might not survive the next one. Recently conservative House Representative Mike Vereb attended a “town hall” meeting in his district in Montgomery County. The former police officer emerged with a commitment to bring cannabis to sick Pennsylvanians. All agree that the availability of medicine should not be determined by a zip code.

The legislative efforts to pass medicinal marijuana in Pennsylvania began in 2009 when the first bill was introduced in to the PA House. The momentum in 2014 has been unprecedented. Pennsylvania’s Governor has vowed a veto of any cannabis reform, but activists count veto proof majorities in both houses. The issue will likely focus on the GOP House leadership and whether it will permit the bill to be considered by the House before the 2014 Legislative Session ends.

Patrick K. Nightingale, Esq.
Photo Credit: Ruhrfisch under (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons