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Feature: Medical Marijuana Gets Historic First House Hearing in Pennsylvania

A Pennsylvania House committee in Harrisburg held the first hearing ever on medical marijuana in the Keystone State today. The hearing, which featured a raft of supportive witnesses, sparked interest and questioning from legislators and left medical marijuana advocates optimistic. The hearing before the House Health and Human Services Committee was on HB 1393, introduced by Rep. Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia). The bill would provide immunity from arrest for patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses who have a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana and a registration ID card. Patients could possess an ounce of marijuana and up to six plants. The bill also provides for state-licensed compassion centers which could sell marijuana to patients. Such sales would be subject to state and local sales taxes. Witnesses included patients, medical marijuana advocates, physicians, attorneys, and a rabbi. It wasn't completely one-sided—there to testify against the bill were the Pennsylvania Elks and a woman who lost a daughter to a drug overdose. Some witness testimony tugged heart strings. In one such moment, Charles Rocha, who had travelled from Pittsburgh, told legislators how, at age 24, he obtained medical marijuana for cancer-ridden mother and how it helped her get through end of life hospice care. But Sharon Smith gave an equally emotion-laden presentation. Smith, who started a drug-treatment advocacy group after her daughter's death from a heroin overdose in 1998, worried that allowing medicinal use of marijuana would lead to drug abuse and addiction, citing supposed "abuses" that have occurred in other medical marijuana states. Smith also said legislators shouldn't be the ones deciding whether any given substance is a medicine. "Let the medical experts decide, not the legislators," she told the committee. Smith's concern about abuse potential was addressed head-on by Edward Pane, CEO of Serento Gardens Alcoholism and Drug Services, Inc. in Hazleton. He told the committee that the gateway theory had been discredited and that patients given small amounts of marijuana were unlikely to develop a physical dependency. "Concerns that the medical use of marijuana will spur individuals into the world of chemical addiction are baseless," said Pane, a part-time instructor on addictions studies at the University of Scranton. HIV sufferer Brad Walter of Larksville told the committee he smoked marijuana four or five times a day to alleviate gastrointestinal distress from the 14 pills he takes each day for his diseases. Walter said he obtained marijuana on the black market because nothing else, including Marinol, worked as well. While the committee Democrats were generally supportive, that wasn't the case with Republican committee co-chair Rep. Matt Baker (R-Wellsboro), who said that federal health officials had found little evidence of marijuana's medical benefits and that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. "I can't support the legalizing of medical marijuana," he said. Similarly, Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett, who is running for his party's gubernatorial nomination, objected. In a letter to the committee, Corbett said the measure would weaken existing drug laws and make a dangerous substance more available. With Republicans in control of the state Senate, the bill's immediate prospects are cloudy. Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Lawrence) have said Senate Republicans have no intention of moving on the bill even if were to pass the Democratically-controlled House. But even a House vote is a ways off. Committee Chairman Frank Oliver (D-Philadelphia) said he plans to hold hearings across the state before taking a committee vote. Still, after the session, supporters were stoked. "It was a great hearing," said Rep. Cohen, the bill's sponsor. "We moved the bill forward dramatically. There was a lot of thoughtful testimony." "I feel very positive," said Chris Goldstein of Pennsylvanians for Medical Marijuana, which has led the campaign in the Keystone Stone. "This was the first medical marijuana hearing ever in Pennsylvania, and the legislators asked a lot of good questions. This was a non-voting hearing, and we still had 18 of 26 committee members show up, and they extended the hearing an hour past when it was supposed to end." That the bill managed to get a hearing at all was a good sign, Goldstein said. "The legislature has been wrapped up dealing with the budget crisis, and there is a lot of stuff that isn’t even going to get heard. That there were hearings at all says a lot. And, frankly, we look forward to having hearings all across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." "Getting a hearing is always important, particularly in a state without a lot of progress before," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), whose Bob Ceppecchio testified at the hearing. "It has generated a lot of press interest, and even if a bill isn't going to pass immediately, the educational process takes a huge leap when you start airing the issue in this kind of official forum." "This will inevitably succeed," said addiction specialist Pane. "On one side, we have overwhelming support and the scientific evidence, and on the other side, hyperbole." Pane said he thought he had gotten through the hostility of Republican co-chair *** when he reminded legislators about how they struggled to get drug treatment resources. "People are not endangered by marijuana being in the hands of doctors, but they don't give you the resources to "I think this has a realistic chance of passing in 2010," said Goldstein. "Progress has been lightning-fast so far. We just started talking about a bill in March, it got introduced in April, it was supposed to have a hearing in September, but the budget crisis happened. A lot of important issues are getting dealt with, but medical marijuana got a hearing today."
Harrisburg, PA
United States
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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not to be too hard on a mother who lost a child to overdose

but Sharon Smith doesn't want medical experts to decide whether MMJ should be legal, she wants alcohol free pass drug warriors like herself to decide. It's chilling that someone who suffered so much themselves is so willing to throw people who need medical marijuana to the wolves. If she hates cannabis so much, why doesn't she want alcohol to be illegal, the drug that causes so much more grief than cannabis ever could.?

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