A bill to legalize medical marijuana in Pennsylvania is getting a second look Wednesday in the state Senate. It's been about a year since the first hearing on the matter in the Legislature, and, since then, it's gone from a fringe issue to a center-stage policy debate.
Most people have attributed that progress to a group of mothers known as "mama bears" who want medical marijuana to treat their very ill children.
Among them is Latrisha Bentch. There was a time when her oldest daughter, Anna, was not sick but she was still just a little different.
"She was just so odd," said Bentch. "She was like obsessed with peeling wallpaper and books. We'd give her books, and she would peel them and rip them into bits and pieces. And that was one of the ways she entertained herself."
Later Anna would have muscle spasms dozens of times a day. Bentch found out later they were seizures. A slew of tests revealed brain damage that doctors couldn't explain, and she was diagnosed with intractable epilepsy – the type that doesn't respond to pharmaceuticals. So Bentch and her husband started looking up other possible treatments. That research led them to medical marijuana.
Bentch figured they could move to Colorado for Anna or they could stay and join the fight for legalizing medical strains in Pennsylvania. They stayed. That was August of 2013. They are still fighting.
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They have a new friend in Gov. Tom Wolf, and some high-powered lawmakers from both parties are lining up to support the effort.
"This is not about the high. This is not about recreation. This is about medicine," said state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Dauphin.
Sen. Judy Swank, D-Berks, called it "just another opportunity, just another treatment to treat many illnesses."
"If this was a derivative of any other plant, the orchid or the yucca or the cactus, it would be in every CVS for decades already," said Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery.
But not everyone in the state Legislature is on board.
Questions on effectiveness
"If it works, I'm 100 percent for it. But no one really knows," said Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, who once worked as a pediatric nurse. "Why not really go after the FDA, and say, 'You've got to change this.' Let's test it. Let's see if it really does work."
Vance would like to see the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relax the federal restrictions on marijuana – restrictions that have limited research on the effectiveness of its uses as medicine.
Vance is not alone in this argument. The state's doctors lobby warns of unknown long-term effects.
"It seems that this whole issue regarding medical marijuana is more of an emotional one right now rather than on hard scientific data and that's the concern ... you know, what's the optimum dose," asked Dr. Karen Rizzo, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. "What's the optimum way to provide it? Should it be an oil? Should it be smoked? Should it be a pill? Should it be a liquid. We don't have those answers."
Even if medical marijuana were legalized, Rizzo said, many doctors wouldn't actually prescribe it out of fear of getting sued for unforeseen consequences. But supporters say medical marijuana can't possibly be any more dangerous than the myriad legal drugs that have already been prescribed for their kids. Some say Pennsylvania doctors are already finding ways to point their patients toward medical marijuana. And they all say they can't just wait for the FDA.
The moms persevere
So Bentch and the rest of the "mama bears" continue to lobby.
Anna is 7 now. The medicine that Bentch is convinced can help Anna isn't legal, but she said it is around; she has received unsolicited offers for it. But she fears it's not reliable since it's not tested and might not be safe.
"What we have going into this ... year two, or second session, rather, is a group that's just so stubborn," Bentch said of the "mama bears."
"None of them are going to quit," she said. "These are the die-hards, and people that don't start projects without finishing them."