I suspect a lot of people who need medical marijuana for themselves or their families were asking themselves that question once the glow of Gov. Tom Wolf’s long-awaited bill-signing began to fade.
Yes, Senate Bill 3 finally was law after a long, sometimes frustrating battle. It means doctors will have another tool at their disposal as they attempt to treat a wide variety of conditions that haven’t responded to traditional treatment.
But they don’t have it yet. and not all of them will be willing to use it. So if you have the idea that patients are seeing instant relief thanks to the bill’s passage, you don’t understand how this is going to work. “There still are a lot of patients wondering if they’re ever going to be able to participate in this program,” said Latrisha Bentch, a co-founder of the advocacy group Campaign for Compassion.
That’s why it’s a good idea to attend events like last Wednesday night’s Medical Cannabis Educational Seminar, sponsored by Keystone Compassionate Care, at the Bethlehem area Public Library.
The few dozen attendees learned a lot from the four panel members about the science and history behind these treatments, the potential consequences of sole reliance on dangerous pharmaceutical drugs and ways in which access to medical cannabis can help people.
They also learned that we all have a role to play during the production and delivery system’s two-year rollout in making sure the law accomplishes what it was designed to accomplish.
The forum even gave attendees an unscheduled taste of the desperation many patients and their families have felt to find something, anything, that will provide relief. a Delaware County woman got up, emotionally explained that she suffered from chronic pain and couldn’t walk without a cane just a couple of weeks ago — and proceeded to stride smartly to the front of the room, smiling through her tears. Less than a week before, she said, she had begun treating herself with an edible form of cannabis. The pain was gone.
“You changed my life!” she told speaker Deena Kenney of Bethlehem, one of the Campaign for Compassion moms. “I can walk again!”
It felt like a tent revival.
Kenney, whose son’s harrowing story of uncontrolled seizures and pharmaceutical-induced behavioral problems is one of many that made Campaign for Compassion such an influential force in this fight, wrote on Facebook that night:
“at that moment, I became overwhelmed at the magnitude of all of these sick people that could be helped by this law that we fought so hard for!”
I’m not naming the woman, because this is not legal, even under the new law, although she’s far from alone in seeking relief on her own. State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, one of S.B. 3’s co-sponsors, wrote all the state’s district attorneys in the wake of the bill signing, asking them not to prosecute people who have marijuana for medicinal use. Bentch says the real answer is decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana for everyone in Pennsylvania.
although the law provides for “safe haven” beginning later this month that allows parents to obtain medical cannabis elsewhere for their children if they can get it back into Pennsylvania, that doesn’t cover adults, one of several improvements that Kenney — her son, Christopher, age 19, isn’t covered — Bentch and others say they hope the state Health Department will make as soon as possible.
Kenney told me, “My son has approximately 1,000 seizures a year, and they sentenced him to 2,000 more seizures. It’s depressing.”
Speakers at the forum asked people to encourage their doctors to undergo the required four hours of training and to be willing to recommend medical marijuana for their patients if there’s a chance it will help. Those recommendations will allow the patients to obtain medical marijuana cards that give them access to licensed dispensaries.
Becky Dansky, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the most important next step is for the Health Department to set the training program up and begin getting doctors registered. She said until patients have the cards, the law’s “safe haven” isn’t really safe.
In some other states, doctors have been reluctant to facilitate their patients’ access, at least in part because marijuana still is federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug that by definition has no medical benefits.
Tom Santanna Jr. of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, an industry trade group, told me, “Without doctors participating in this program, there’s no program.”
Dansky said patients and families have to be their own advocates with their physicians. She said, ‘We hope doctors will be open minded so patients can stay with their doctors who have treated them in the past.”
So yes, Pennsylvania has legalized medical marijuana. But for many patients, their families and their advocates, relief still is two years away — and not certain even then.
“It’s kind of like you’re happy you’ve got this law,” Kenney concluded, “and now you have to wait.”