By Evan Brandt, MARCH 12, 2017 — 8:50 AM — Published by: Daily Times News
As a rush of medical marijuana investors flood Southeastern Pennsylvania in the scramble to obtain one of the two growing permits allotted to the region, the law that makes it all possible is already being graded.
Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law, enacted last April, has received a B-minus in the annual report from Americans for Safe Access, “a national member-based organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research,” which is how their web site describes their mission.
“We’re hoping next year, Pennsylvania’s grade will stay constant or even go up,” said Steph Sherer, executive director at Americans for Safe Access.
The report, “A Patient-Focused Analysis of the Patchwork of State Laws,” determines grades by setting a number of fixed parameters, such as “patient rights/civil protection,” “access to medicine,” and “consumer safety and provider requirement” and measuring the laws in each of the 44 states which have made medical marijuana legal against those benchmarks.
Pennsylvania’s law — not yet fully implemented — received high marks for its functionality and ease of navigation, neither of which has been field-tested yet as the medicine is not yet being distributed.
It received lower marks for protections of patient rights, access to medicine and the lowest (37 out of 100) for consumer safety and provider requirements, but mostly that’s because ASA wants to see how they are implemented, said Sherer.
“If Pennsylvania can move through the implementation process in a timely manner and adopt strong product safety protocols, like those outlined in this report, it could be one of the stronger programs in the country,” she said.
Since Pennsylvania passed its law last year, five other states have legalized recreational use of marijuana and four more have passed medicinal use bills.
ASA was very involved in the crafting of Pennsylvania’s law and Sherer singled out Lebanon County-based state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-48th Dist., for his advocacy.
“The thing that stood out for us in Pennsylvania was the very real compassion that the lawmakers had for the patients and they really made sure it was a patient-centered law,” she said.
The law was co-sponsored by Montgomery County Democrat Daylin Leach, D-17th Dist.
Sherer faulted Pennsylvania’s law for not allowing home cultivation, which will delay access to patients who need relief now, and for failing to change intoxicated driving laws, which means that patients using marijuana-based products can still be arrested for DUI, as well as prohibitions against smoking the products.
“The best word for it is ‘inhalation’ and medically speaking, that’s really the gold standard of delivery systems, it doesn’t have to go through your stomach or skin, it’s the fastest way to the blood stream,” Sherer said.
“But I understand the optics and we can’t undo decades of propaganda around cannabis,” said Sherer, noting that Pennsylvania’s law has a “very comprehensive” list of medical ailments for which medical marijuana products can be prescribed.
“I think Pennsylvania’s law is going to work well because they are focused on implementing it quickly, so they have taken a phased approach which, as a businessman, I think is very astute,” said Jon Cohn.
He is the chief operating officer of Keystone Medical Cannabis LLC, which Wednesday night pitched its proposal for a growing and processing facility in the Titan Steel building at 740 Queen St. in Pottstown.
“So where we lost points (in the Americans for Safe Access report) is more because the system has not been put in place yet than because of it being poorly designed,” Cohn said of Pennsylvania’s law. “Some of the parameters have not been defined because they come later in the process. For example, there’s no reason to hold up licensing a facility getting it started because you want to write rules for something that hasn’t even grown one plant yet.”
Many of the law’s flaws and benefits will be played out in Southeast Pennsylvania, which has fully 40 percent of the Commonwealth’s potential patients, according to the research Cohn’s presented to Pottstown borough council.
It is just one of a half-dozen proposals appearing before municipal boards seeking approval and support in the quest for the two grow permits and 10 dispensary permits that will be issued by the state for the six-county region.
“My partner told me today that there are already 25 applications for this region,” Cohn told Digital First Media Friday.
Perhaps that the interest is due to the fact that Southeast Pennsylvania has four of the 30 largest cancer centers in the United States and has the largest number of post traumatic stress disorder and pain management patients in the state, according to Cohn’s research.
“I’m a veteran with chronic pain, so just not sure what to do,” John F. McKinnon Jr. posted on The Mercury’s Facebook page in response to a request for opinions. “The VA will not even talk to us about medical marijuana, but have no issues prescribing opioids.”
Cohn said if successful, his enterprise hopes to engage with Veterans Administration doctors to see if medical marijuana can be used to treat not only pain, but also the PTSD often experienced by vets.
He also pointed out that using marijuana-derived products for pain management could help reduce the opioid crisis currently ravaging Pennsylvania and other states.
Sherer agreed, and pointed to the reference in the ASA report that a 2014 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that states which have legalized medical marijuana have an opioid overdose mortality rate nearly 25 percent lower than those which do not.
Sherer’s advocacy has more than just professional meaning for her.
When she was in her 20s, she was suffering from a disease called dystonia, an inflammation disorder, and the pharmaceuticals she was taking for it were causing liver failure.
“So I had a choice between being on dialysis for the rest of my life, or not being able to get out of bed. One day my doctor came in, shut the door and asked if I used marijuana. I said ‘no’ and he asked if I knew where I could get some and at first I thought he wanted me to get some for him,” Sherer said with a laugh.
“But he said no, he had other patients who were responding well to using it and suggested I give it a try and that was 16 years ago,” Sherer said. “I have no idea where I would be right now without it. And then I realized there must be other like me and there wasn’t really anyone advocating for this from a patient’s perspective,” which is how ASA, which turns 15 in April, got started.
Similar stories were posted on The Mercury’s Facebook page, in response to a query seeking reader opinions.
“My one son is autistic and suffers from SPD as anxiety and I also think some form of this beautiful plant can help him,” Meghan Shanta Chambers posted.
Lauren Pickard is already familiar with the benefits of medical marijuana products.
“My daughter is currently a medical marijuana patient under the safe harbor clause, we’ve received the letter from the department of health allowing us to obtain medical marijuana from another legal state. She currently uses Haleigh’s Hope from CO, and was able to come off all five pharmaceuticals and is now seizure free, something the medications, and even brain surgery, couldn’t do,” Pickard wrote.
“My concern is how this access will change once the first dispensary opens, as it states in the safe harbor letter, it expires in 2018 or when the first dispensary opens. My concern is that when expiration happens, we’ll no longer be able to legally obtain her medication from out of state. I would not be interested in trying a different product because this one works so well, and could compromise all the progress she’s made in the past year — from 60-80 seizures a day and night while on pharmaceuticals, to 0 on cannabis oil and a strict clean eating diet,” Pickard wrote.
“I have a very close friend with cancer. She’s constantly in pain and doctors just keep putting her on more and more medications,” wrote Stephanie Walk. “Use of medical marijuana could greatly decrease the number of pills she needs to take for pain management …. and maybe even help her finally get into remission.”
“My mother has chronic nerve pain and problems sleeping, both made better with the use of medicinal marijuana,” wrote Brandy Lee Doll Yea. “I think something with so many benefits needs to be made available to the people who need it.”
Laura Johnson wrote, “I have a relative who has a slow moving cancer and is also a paraplegic with lots of pain. He is hoping to be able to use it since other meds are ineffective or make him incapacitated.”
“My grandmother was hospitalized over Christmas with lung clots and she also has really bad arthritis in her knees and hips,” wrote Melanie Morgan. “We have been wishing for this to be legal for a while now because all of her doctors agree that it would be more helpful and better for her than narcotics.”
It is people like, Sherer said, that her organization’s advocacy is aiming to help.
“Really, we believe the best case scenario is for the state to get out of the way of the relationship between doctor and patient and leave medicine up to the doctors, but as laws go, I’m cautiously optimistic that Pennsylvania’s may be one of the best in the country,” Sherer said.