Experts recommend additional marijuana studies that feds prohibit

 Sydney Michaels, 4, looks up at her dad, Paul, in January at Pennsylvania's Capitol Building where they were pushing for legalization of medical marijuana. Sydney's mother, Julie, says her daughter, who suffers from seizures, might benefit from oil extracted from marijuana. (Marc Levy/AP Photo, file)

Sydney Michaels, 4, looks up at her dad, Paul, in January at Pennsylvania's Capitol Building where they were pushing for legalization of medical marijuana. Sydney's mother, Julie, says her daughter, who suffers from seizures, might benefit from oil extracted from marijuana. (Marc Levy/AP Photo, file)

Marijuana is illegal because it has no known medical use. But researchers say they can’t study its medical uses because it’s illegal.

That’s the catch-22 in which Pennsylvania lawmakers find themselves: stuck between constituents who believe in marijuana’s medical value, and doctors and researchers who say there hasn’t been enough study about either short-term impact or long-term side effects.

The lawmakers’ problem was on vivid display Tuesday at the first of three hearings on the subject of medical marijuana, hosted by members of the House judiciary and health committees.

“I’m glad I’m down here, and not up there,” said Dr. Charles Cutler, vice president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. Cutler told the lawmakers that his group was neither for nor against medical cannabis in principle. But he said that at this point the Society can’t recommend liberalizing marijuana policies until significantly more information is available.

“Let’s learn more about how and why this product works, whom it would benefit, and what the risks are,” Cutler said. “We simply need more medical research done before legitimizing medical marijuana for use.”

Cannabis has some demonstrated medical uses, such as stimulating appetite of cancer patients and others. But when it comes to some of the more dramatic possibilities raised by supporters, more is generally claimed than known, Culter said. For example, claims that the drug can calm seizures in some young epilepsy patients are unproven, and the research he’s seen isn’t promising, Cutler said.

But some lawmakers responded that their constituents need help now. Mike Regan, a Republican from what he calls a “very conservative” district in Central Pennsylvania, recalled one constituent, formerly in law enforcement, who’s gone to extreme measures to help his child.

“His son has epilepsy, and he’s been forced to engage in a circuit of people who go to Colorado, basically kind of bootlegging marijuana to get to his child, who he declares is seizure free when he’s on the oil.”

Regan, a former U.S. marshal, says he doesn’t want Pennsylvania to be last state to decriminalize a drug that could be very useful.

And what’s more, he said, worrying about the long-term effects of marijuana seems strange when one considers how many drugs with well-known long-term risks are used routinely.

“York County has experienced a 300-percent increase in heroin deaths,” Regan said. “And it’s always the same story — it starts out as being prescription drugs until they can’t afford them or can’t get them. Then it becomes heroin. Then it becomes a death.”

Regan said that with almost half the states in the nation legalizing medical marijuana — 23 states so far — he hopes Pennsylvania isn’t the last to get on board. The Pennsylvania Senate is now considering at least one medical marijuana bill, and House members say they may soon be ready to take up one of their own.

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