Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf took the unprecedented step of hosting a roundtable discussion on medical cannabis at the governor’s residence in Harrisburg.
Secretary of Planning and Policy John Hanger moderated the panel, which included legislators, medical cannabis advocates, doctors and a lawyer who serves as a consultant on the issue in other states.
Also in attendance were Secretary of Health Karen Murphy, Physician General Rachel Levine, and the two sponsors of Senate Bill 3, which would legalize medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, Sens. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) and Daylin Leach (D-Delaware).
Following are some highlights from the roundtable:
During his introduction to the event, Wolf said there is “a lot of misinformation and ignorance” about medical cannabis, and that it’s time to “get the facts” out about it.
“We need to get people to understand what we’re missing by not having access to this powerful and effective drug,” he said. “We need to let doctors treat patients with the medicine that they’d like to treat them with.”
Folmer, who has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, called medical cannabis “some of the safest medicine we can give to people,” adding, “If I can get a prescription for OxyContin, why not a recommendation from a doctor for cannabis?”
“We were misled about cannabis, and there’s real medical evidence of this,” he said.
Folmer noted that, as a conservative legislator in a conservative district, he “never imagined” that he’d be supporting a bill to make cannabis legal someday, but that he’s glad to “continue this educational journey.”
He stressed that Pennsylvania should allow for continued research so it can “create real, medical-grade cannabis” and share its research and data.
Leach said that not approving medical cannabis for those who desperately need it would be “cruel, heartless and irrational,” adding, “Every day this goes by without being passed is an injustice.”
He pointed out that S.B. 3 recently received strong bipartisan support in the Senate, gaining 40 votes in favor (the measure is now being considered by the House of Representatives). Leach acknowledged, however, that the bill’s opponents warn that cannabis could be harmful to children and lead to stronger drug use, but stressed that “fairly few adolescents would use it.” Leach also reiterated that the legislation is “not about recreational marijuana.”
“There’s not much THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) in medical cannabis, so it can’t even intoxicate you,” he stressed. “So it’s not going to alter your brain.”
Leach said he hopes the industry’s infrastructure will be up and running in a year to 18 months, but that two years may be more realistic.
Dr. Bruce Nicholson, chief of the division of pain medicine at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, said that he had “no interest whatsoever” in medical cannabis 10 years ago, but that he’s “come a long way” since then.
“Taking care of patients with pain is what I do on a daily basis,” he explained. He said cannabis has been used as a medicine for 2,000 years and can treat “a large spectrum of conditions.”
Nicholson also noted that common pain relievers — from over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen to opioids like OxyContin — kill 32,000 people per year.
“The medicine we use for chronic conditions have significant side effects,” he said. “Cannabis has a much lower risk profile, but we can’t do additional studies until we pass intelligent legislation.”
“Medical cannabis is, without a doubt, safe,” Nicholson said. He added that if physicians “would read the literature and understand the science, they would come to same conclusion that others have and say, yes, it should be legal.”
Dr. William Trescher, a pediatric neurologist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, said that as someone who works with children with brain disorders, he’s always “looking for new forms of therapy.” He noted that some families of his patients wind up seeking help from numerous physicians, medications and treatments but come away “without any benefit.”
Trescher said that for a child who suffers a hundred seizures a day, reducing that number even by 50 percent with medical cannabis “is a big deal.”
“Cannabis may be a beneficial therapy, but we don’t fully understand it yet, so we need to study it,” he noted. “We need to be allowed to move forward and explore how these medications work.”
Trescher also told attendees, “You can O.D. and die from opioids and alcohol, but not from cannabis.”
Troy Kaplan, a New York-based attorney who consults on medical cannabis issues, said the debate on whether the drug is beneficial “is over.” “The debate now,” he said, “is how to regulate it.”
He advised that Pennsylvania should look at proven models in other states, “choose the best practices” and base its decisions “on science, not hysteria.” If it does, he said, the commonwealth “could become the epicenter of cannabis research.”
“The cost of running this business is high and full of risk,” he said. Pennsylvania’s regulations “should leave nothing to the imagination,” he stressed, adding that “ensuring safe patient access” is paramount.