When Gov. Tom Wolf signed the Medical Marijuana Act into law last month, making Pennsylvania the 24th state to legalize cannabis for medical purposes, Ken Eisner could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
It’s not that Eisner, a past president of Temple Ohav Shalom, is personally in need of marijuana to treat any medical condition. But as the founder of MUM’s The Word (MUM stands for Medical Use Marijuana), a grassroots campaign created to promote the legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania and other states, he knows the suffering that will be alleviated thanks to this new law.
“I’m proud of what all was accomplished,” said Eisner, an attorney. “And I’m proud I was a part of it. This was politics working as it should.”
Eisner created MUM’s The Word in January 2015, after seeing a news report featuring two Pennsylvania mothers and their epileptic children. While research has shown that medical marijuana could help with the constant epileptic seizures, the children could not legally obtain cannabis in Pennsylvania.
One of Eisner’s family members was battling cancer at the time, and he began to wonder if marijuana could ease some of those symptoms as well. After researching the positive outcomes of using marijuana to treat a host of diseases and conditions, Eisner became an advocate.
“We tried to raise awareness,” Eisner said of MUM’s The Word, noting that his organization placed billboards on the Pennsylvania Turnpike advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana, and was in the process of raising funds for a billboard in the home district of Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-District 28) — an outspoken opponent to the bill — when the bill finally passed.
The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Folmer (R-District 48) and Sen. Daylin Leach (D-District 17), and the eventual bipartisan support for the bill echoed the will of the citizens of the commonwealth, 88 percent of whom support the legalization of medical marijuana, according to a 2015 poll taken by ProCon.org.
“In the late fall of 2013, I was approached by mothers with children who had epilepsy to see if I would co-sponsor the bill with Sen. Leach,” said Folmer, who represents a very conservative part of the state in Lebanon County and parts of Dauphin and York counties.
After reviewing the relevant research, Folmer was on board and ready to help Leach, who hails from Montgomery County outside of Philadelphia.
“My staff was less than enthused,” Folmer recalled. “We were going into a re-election year, and they were concerned how that would play in the Republican primary. But I was pleasantly surprised.”
Colleagues began calling him “Marijuana Mike,” he said.
“But I proved to be on the right side of the issue,” Folmer said.
The bill had been “languishing” in the House of Representatives for a long time, according to Folmer, but the grassroots work of the families involved with the Campaign for Compassion helped move things along. They set up a “Waiting Room” outside the offices of the representatives every day that the legislature was in session. There were parents and their children, who would be having seizures that the parents contended could be alleviated with cannabis.
“It was a meaningful gesture,” said Lolly Bentch Myers of Harrisburg, one of the mother’s leading the charge for legalization. Her daughter, Anna, 8, suffers from mesial temporal sclerosis, which causes epilepsy, autism and a sleep disorder.
“I think it made a tremendous impact on the House of Representatives,” said Myers. “Every time our elected officials were there, we were there. Our kids were seizing there. It was raw and real and impactful. We didn’t sugarcoat it. We needed them to see what we were dealing with. Our hash tag was #stillwaiting.”
Approximately 33 percent of children suffering from epilepsy do not respond to traditional medicinal intervention. Anna is one of those children.
“It’s a frustrating, depressing, dark place you find yourself in,” Myers said. “Statistically, her chance of finding an anti-convulsive that would help was zero percent.”
Myers first heard of the benefits of medical marijuana through a documentary in 2013 featuring CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta. She then began connecting on social media with other parents whose children were suffering from medically resistant epilepsy.
“We started lobbying together,” she said. The network rapidly grew to include others who could benefit from medical marijuana, including veterans and chronic pain patients.
“We are a mixed bag of nuts that would steal your heart,” Myers said. “We inspired each other and we learned from each other.”
Eisner’s MUM’s The Word raised funds to support the Campaign for Compassion to help educate the public as well as the legislators.
“Ken has a heart for this and he wanted to pitch in and help,” Myers said. “He has been a wonderful support system for all the patients.”
While it will probably be about 18 months until medical marijuana is available in the state, Myers is finally looking to the future with optimism.
“I feel very positive about this,” she said. “I never, ever have felt so hopeful.”
Heather Shuker of Pittsburgh, whose 13-year-old daughter Hannah suffers from severe intractable epilepsy, said the passage of the new law is a “relief.”
Hannah suffers from hundreds of seizures a month, Shuker said, and the seizure medication that is available to her makes her lethargic. There are no side effects to medical cannabis, Shuker said, and the children who are taking it in states where it is already legal “seem to wake up.”
“You can see it in their eyes,” she explained. “When they are on cannabis they can function.”
Hannah, who used to run around and eat on her own, had digressed to the point where she needed a feeding tube, began to lose her ability to walk and became severely depressed as side effects of the anti-seizure medicine she was prescribed.
Hannah already has begun taking the cannabis, and it is making a difference, said Shuker. “Her seizures have decreased by 50 percent, and we are not using the emergency medicine regularly anymore. The emergency medicine used to debilitate her. It would make her drowsy and she would lose some of her cognitive abilities. There are no side effects to the medical cannabis.”
Cyril Wecht, who has been an advocate for the legalization of medical marijuana for decades, said “there is no reason in the world” why cannabis should not be available to those who need it for medical reasons.
Wecht, a forensic pathologist, attorney and medical-legal consultant, has performed about 20,000 autopsies throughout his career, and has supervised about 40,000. He has “never seen a death attributed to marijuana,” he said.
Opioid prescriptions, on the other hand, are causing an epidemic of addiction and death. “You don’t see people addicted to marijuana,” Wecht continued. “What the hell is the problem here?”
But despite all the research pointing to the therapeutic effects of the drug, Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel does see a problem.
Vogel, the executive director of the Aleph Institute, a not-for-profit organization offering services to imprisoned Jewish men and women and 12-step programs for those recovering from drug and alcohol abuse, said he was not in favor of legalizing medical cannabis.
While he supports the medical judgment of physicians, and cited the Torah’s precept of prohibiting a person from suffering, Vogel believes that the legalization of medical marijuana can be dangerous.
“I’m here on the front line,” he said, adding that he has seen an addictive quality to marijuana.
“When it comes to drugs and alcohol, we have to turn to the experts who deal with this,” Vogel said. “I’m not an M.D. I just deal with the leftover mess.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.