Five guest speakers addressed a crowded room in the Ellwood City Municipal Building’s auditorium yesterday. They were there for a medical cannabis round table discussion sponsored by the Ellwood City Chamber of Commerce.
The audience included citizens from Ellwood and surrounding areas, Borough Council President Brad Ovial, two school board members, and Leah and Olivia McGurk, two wheelchair-bound children with Dravet Syndrome, a rare and catastrophic form of intractable epilepsy that begins in infancy- a disease that medical cannabis has proven effective against where other pharmaceuticals have failed.
A crew from Armstrong cable was also present to film the discussion. Chamber President Lori Hillard and Borough Manager Bob Villella presided over the meeting, and State Representative Jaret Gibbons served as moderator.
As one speaker, Patrick Nightingale said, the discussion wasn’t held in a vacuum. Twenty-three states have legalized medical marijuana and the Pennsylvania government is deciding on Senate Bill 3, which, if passed, will make us the 24th state.
Currently, the cannabis plant is designated by the Federal government as a Schedule I drug, placing it in the same category as heroine and crystal meth. As a Schedule I drug, it is defined as having no useful purpose and thus, it’s almost impossible to perform medical research on the cannabis plant in the United States. Ironically, the Federal government owns a patent on cannabis for its use as a neuroprotectant.
- State Senator Mike Folmer, a Republican representing the 48th District, as a sponsor of Senate Bill 3, is a leading proponent of medical cannabis. His position, in spite of being a social conservative, is that all research has demonstrated the benefits of medical cannabis and that the Federal government has acted against the best interest of medical science and the American people by maintaining cannabis’ status as a Schedule I drug. “We’ve been lied to for 70 years about cannabis,” he said. However, he emphasized that Senate Bill 3 is for medicinal purposes only, not for recreational marijuana smoking.
- State Representative Matt Baker, Republican, representing the 68th District, was unable to attend. He is opposed and left a printed statement. He feels that due to the large amount of medical organizations that are against the legalization of cannabis (including PA Medical Society, American Medical Association, American Cancer Society, National Eye Institute and many others), the Federal classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug, and the FDA’s continued rejection of medical cannabis, that it is unwise for the Pennsylvania government to bypass the FDA.
- Ryan West, of Greenbriar Treatment Centers, a drug addiction rehab center, took a neutral position. He feels that the research of medical cannabis is inconclusive and that the push for Senate Bill 3 is too much of a political and moral issue and that “dispassionate scientific research is needed to tip the scale.” He also focused on how Greenbriar treats many people for marijuana addiction.
- Michael Palladini, of Pyramid Healthcare, another a rehab center, also took a neutral position, emphasizing that while recreational marijuana is dangerous, medical marijuana is an entirely different subject. Pharmaceutical companies will be able to create strains of cannabis designed to treat specific illnesses.
- Mayor Anthony J. Court, although unable to attend the meeting, had a statement read on his behalf. The mayor is in favor of medical cannabis as long as it is controlled and regulated by the state. He also emphasized that it is a difficult decision with a large base of information to consider.
- Criminal District Attorney Patrick Nightingale is an outspoken proponent of legalization. As a DA, he represents heroin traffickers and has a unique insight into the world of illegal drugs. He feels medical cannabis, which is organic and nontoxic, would be a safer alternative to current pharmaceuticals for some patient. Drugs such as Vicodin and Oxycontin are highly addicting and are a gateway drug to heroin. Furthermore, he believes it is irrational that alcohol (a frequent killer of college students) is legal and marijuana is not. “If you have a half-gallon of Vodka in your house, you can go home tonight, drink it, and die. You can even drink too much mouthwash and die, but you’d have to eat 1500 pounds of cannabis to die.”
- The final speaker, Danielle McGurk, is a normal citizen and mother of Leah and Olivia, who both have Dravet Syndrome. Her children are prescribed an extensive list of drugs, including methadone. Side affects for the prescriptions include increased seizures and sudden death. It has been demonstrated that medical cannabis can reduce Dravet Syndrome seizures and lacks the horrible side affects and highly addictive nature of drugs such as methadone. Although 23 other states have legalized medical cannabis, her family is unable to move. She closed with, “It’s not right that I can’t get proper treatment for my children because of what state I live in.”
“This isn’t a political issue to me,” Folmer said. “It’s an education issue, a people and science issue. I don’t believe government should stay in the way of people and doctors in their compassionate use of medicine.”
[This is Part 1 of a two part series on the medical cannabis round table. Part 2 will go into detail over the issues and information the speakers presented.]