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May 2, 2014

Governor endorses medical marijuana for ill children

Exclusion of others irks moms

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett remains opposed to legalizing marijuana for medical use, but now makes one exception: the use of marijuana extract to treat severe seizures in children, his office said Thursday.

Corbett’s office first confirmed to The Associated Press that the Republican governor had met with several parents to tell them in person about his decision.

Corbett had been under pressure on the issue from state senators and parents who believe the oil extract, called cannabidiol, can save the lives of their seizure-wracked children. All four Democrats running to challenge Corbett in the fall support a broader legalization of medical marijuana, and some parents were preparing a sit-in at Corbett’s offices if he did not agree to meet with them.

Corbett, a former prosecutor who opposed all forms of medical marijuana, said in a statement Thursday that he is trying to balance the parents’ concerns with the demands of federal drug laws.

“I have heard the concerns and heartbreaking stories of these families and want to help,” Corbett said. “However, we must address this issue in a way that helps these families, but also protects the public health and safety of all Pennsylvanians.”

Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni said a plan, developed by the governor in an effort to ease the suffering of the children but strictly control access, will need approval from the Legislature.

Under that plan, cannabidiol, or CBD, would be dispensed at research-based hospitals by medical professionals with experience treating children who have severe seizure disorders or Dravet syndrome, a form of epilepsy.

Pagni said Corbett and his staff have been quietly researching the issue and meeting with parents and medical professionals since last fall.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, embraced Corbett’s change of heart, saying in a statement that “if a child’s physician believes that cannabidiol would relieve suffering, state law should not stand in the way.”

The Pennsylvania State Nurses Association also applauded the decision, although it was not clear whether House GOP majority leaders will embrace it.

Dana Ulrich, a Lancaster County resident whose 6-year-old daughter Lorelei suffers from severe seizures, expressed disappointment with Corbett.

Corbett’s position is so narrow that it would preclude help for some children and adults with ailments such as cancer or multiple sclerosis, she said. Some children might respond to a particular extract that is higher in THC, the hallucinogenic chemical in marijuana, Ulrich said.

“This is a very exclusive bill, which is not what we wanted from the get-go,” Ulrich said.

Cristy Harding — whose son Jason, 13, has a form of epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome that hasn’t responded to medication — may agree with Ulrich.

The Turbotville emergency room nurse, who has advocated for the use of medical marijuana to help individuals grappling with severe illnesses, said that while she is “grateful that (Corbett) has finally recognized the needs of my son,” she is “disappointed” that his support is so narrow.

“I am disappointed he is not supporting Senate Bill 1182 (to legalize medical marijuana),” she said. “I’m disappointed he continues to neglect millions of other Pennsylvanians that equally need access to this remedy for a myriad of things.”

Doctors have told Harding that the medical marijuana compound Corbett has supported is the next viable option for her son, Jason.

But now, Harding said she’ll have to learn whether Corbett’s proposal would allow for easy access to the compound, or whether it will be restricted to uses at certain approved research facilities, similar to Alabama’s recently passed Carly’s law. That could mean a four-hour trip to get prescriptions, she said.

“I do need more information on his decision,” she said.

However, she remains upset at his conditional support, which could exclude other marijuana-based alternative treatments not only for her son, but others that may need medical marijuana for their ailments.

“I don’t want Governor Corbett to limit our options,” she said.

Previously, Corbett maintained that Pennsylvania should wait for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to declare the drug safe for medical use. In October, the Food and Drug Administration approved testing a British pharmaceutical firm’s marijuana-derived drug that is CBD-based and has all of its THC removed.

Twenty-one states now have broader laws on medical marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Numerous other states are considering it and Florida’s Supreme Court has approved placing a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot to legalize it.

Separately, the governors of Alabama and Mississippi have signed laws in the past few weeks that are close to the concept that Corbett is now backing, and Florida’s Senate overwhelmingly passed a similar bill on Monday.

The extract comes from a strain of marijuana called Charlotte’s Web, named after the first child treated with it. The plant is low in THC and high in CBD. It can be delivered by dropper or pill form.

Ulrich and other parents of children who suffer seizures have traveled to the state Capitol several times in recent months to make their case and in January testified before a Senate committee.

They say their children suffer hundreds of seizures a week and have lost their ability to function intellectually at their age level. They fear that a seizure will kill their child and say they have found no relief from numerous federally approved medications that carry debilitating side effects.

The Daily Item staff reporter Ashley M. Wislock contributed to this report.

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