Parents of children afflicted by epileptic seizures described their lives in heart-wrenching detail Tuesday as they appealed to Pennsylvania lawmakers to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, saying it could provide relief that conventional medications have not.
The Senate Law and Justice Committee heard 2 1/2 hours of testimony from opponents and supporters on a topic that typically raises highly charged debate surrounding health care and illegal drugs in whatever state it's discussed.
The Pennsylvania Medical Society opposes the bill, as does Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The Medical Society said more study is needed. The Pennsylvania State Nurses Association supports the measure.
"This is a matter of great exigency because every day that goes by there are kids who are dying" and parents who "put their kid to bed not knowing if he is going to wake up in the morning," said Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery.
But Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, the bill's sponsor, acknowledged that many misperceptions surround the issue. And the committee did not vote on the measure before ending the hearing.
Deena Kenney of Bethlehem told the panel her 17-year-old son Christopher was born with a disorder that hardens portions of his brain, which in turn causes seizures, autism, mental retardation and behavioral problems.
In a violent reaction to one medication in 2012, Christopher hurled a glass bowl at his mother, barely missing her head and shattering the bowl against the wall behind her, she said. For the next six months, she wore a helmet, Kenney said.
"Chris would attack me with intent to kill me," she told the panel.
Christine Brann of Hummelstown, near Harrisburg, said she is hopeful that an oil extracted from the marijuana plant can ease her 3-year-old son Garrett's seizures. She and her husband are among hundreds of out-of-state parents currently on a waiting list for treatment in Colorado.
"There have been so many of them that they're calling these families 'medical refugees,'" she told the lawmakers.
Cara Salemme said her 7-year-old son Jackson hasn't spoken to her since he developed pediatric epilepsy two years ago and now functions intellectually well below his age.
Salemme is convinced that the extract may help her son. She said Jackson's neurologist told her he would prescribe it if it were legal in Pennsylvania.
"If it doesn't happen here, we're going to have to move," she said at a news conference before the hearing.
Josh Stanley, who co-founded a Colorado nonprofit that produces the extract and explores the medical potential of marijuana, told the panel the compounds in the plant could be effective in treating cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and other diseases.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Florida's Supreme Court on Monday approved placing a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the medical use of marijuana on the November ballot.
The Medical Society also renewed its call for the federal government to downgrade marijuana's status as a "Schedule I" drug — a category that includes drugs that have no medical use, including heroin and LSD — to facilitate research.
Also opposed to the bill was the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, which has 93 lodges in the state and has an ongoing drug awareness program for young people. Spokesman Steven Kaylor said the group fears the law would lead to outright legalization of marijuana.