Panel: Promise of medical cannabis must rise to federal legal challenges

Michael Bradwell
Observer Reporter

Despite the existence of a Pennsylvania law permitting the use of medical marijuana, the treatment still has a long way to go before it can get into the hands of those who could legally use it for relief from chronic pain or a variety of other medical conditions for which it has been approved.

That was the conclusion of an hourlong panel discussion conducted Friday before a packed room of members of Washington County Chamber of Commerce at The Golf Club of Washington.

The discussion, moderated by Patrick Nightingale, a Pittsburgh criminal and defense attorney who is executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, touched upon many aspects – and challenges – of Pennsylvania Act 16, passed last year, which permits the establishment of licensed growing and processing facilities for the production of nonaddictive medical cannabis. That makes the Keystone State one of 28 that have enacted some type of marijuana use law.

“Pennsylvania’s (law) is a very highly regulated program,” he said.

Medical cannabis, also known as cannabidiol or CBD, is a non-psychotropic cannabinoid compound that can offer enormous therapeutic potential without the addictive effects present with opioid drugs.

But there is a major division between its now-legal status in those 28 states and how the federal government views its use.

Nightingale noted that Act 16 provides for 25 “grow and process” licenses across the state. Locally, Rostraver and Hopewell townships have made zoning changes in response to inquiries from companies interested in locating operations there. The companies now must submit applications to the state for approval.

But at this point, Nightingale added, “companies have more questions than answers” about entry to Pennsylvania.

There’s no question about the medical benefits of a non-addictive pain medication, which cannabidiol can provide, a physician and a cancer victim said Friday.

Pennsylvania’s law permits its use for treating 17 different medical conditions, including HIV/AIDS, cancer, autism, glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Crohn’s, sickle cell anemia, multiple sclerosis, severe seizure disorders and chronic neuropathic pain.

According to information provided by Project CBD, a national organization that updates doctors, patients and the public on developments in cannabis science, cannabis can improve upon the pain relief that opioids provide; can prevent opioid tolerance building and the need for dose escalation; and decrease the symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

Nightingale noted, however, that there is no medical insurance coverage for medical cannabis.

“Patients pay for it out of pocket,” he said, adding that someone who has been paying $20 to $30 per month for an opioid pain medication at a pharmacy could go to paying “hundreds of dollars per month” for medical cannabis.

Friday’s panel included Sarah Bargas, a registered nurse and cancer survivor; Tom Perko, co-founder of the PMCS; and Washington physician Dr. Anthony Canterna.

Bargas, who said she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2013, said she moved to Oregon, where medical cannabis is legal, and began taking cannabis oil as an alternative to opioids she was taking for pain relief. While in Oregon, she also got a job working for a start-up growing and production company and today is an advocate and educator for medical cannabis.

“People have a lot of stereotypes” about the use of cannabis for medical treatment, she said, adding that after being given three months to live four years ago, “I haven’t died yet.”

Canterna said he became interested in the issue after a representative of a company that was looking to start a growing and production operation in the area asked him to become an investor.

While he declined to be an investor because he still treats patients for drug and alcohol abuse, Canterna said he became a medical adviser.

Canterna said one of the problems in promoting the use of medical cannabis is that because marijuana has been considered taboo for so long, there is little access to research.

Despite that, Canterna said, “I think what’s going to happen in the next two or three years, we’re going to find that medical cannabis is going to be on the formulary for every insurance company in the nation.

“Medical cannabis has absolutely no addictive properties and it’s useful for multiple medical conditions.”

Nightingale mentioned that opioid overdose deaths go down an average of 25 percent in states with medical cannabis laws.

But he was emphatic about the paradox of Pennsylvania and other states legalizing the use of medical cannabis.

“Trust me, everything we are doing under Act 16 in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania violates federal controlled substances law. It is illegal under federal law.”

Another challenge that arose during Friday’s discussion is that banks are prohibited from doing business with the growing and production operations that have been made legal in Pennsylvania.

Pat McCune, CEO of Community Bank, said he was asked by a customer to look into the possibility of the bank becoming a depository for a medical marijuana company.

McCune, who checked with bank regulators, was informed it would be illegal.

“It is forbidden for a bank in Pennsylvania to be a depository for this type of business,” he said.

Nightingale agreed.

“You’re right. Most financial institutions don’t want to go near this because it remains illegal on a federal level.”

Washington County Commissioner Harlan Shober, who attended Friday’s discussion, said he had just returned from Harrisburg where there was a discussion about the state’s growing opioid addiction crisis.

Noting that 80 percent of heroin users in the U.S. reported starting with prescription opioids, Shober said he was coming around to the idea that medical cannabis could be used as a non-addictive alternative to opioids for chronic pain relief.

“I’m starting to change my mind here, guys, so keep going,” he said.