HARRISBURG, PA — A bill decisively passed by the Pennsylvania Senate to allow medical marijuana in the state could be stalled indefinitely if a key lawmaker in the House has his way.
UPDATE: Pennsylvania House Votes 149-43 to Pass Medical Marijuana Bill
Rep. Matt Baker (R-Tioga County), Chair of the House Health Committee, said Friday that he has no intentions of allowing his committee to take up the Senate’s medical marijuana bill — or any other bill to allow marijuana for medical purposes.
“It is not likely that this bill will be taken up in the foreseeable future at this point in time,” Baker said Friday.
Unfortunately for those Pennsylvanians suffering from cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, or a dozen other qualifying conditions, the Senate approved medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 3 has been assigned to Rep. Baker’s committee in the Pennsylvania House, where a similar bill died last year after also receiving Senate approval.
Senate Bill 3, bipartisan legislation spearheaded by Senators Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery County) and Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon County), was decisively passed on Tuesday by the Senate by a 40-7 vote. The bill would have created a comprehensive, tightly regulated medical marijuana program in the state.
Despite overwhelming support from both the Pennsylvania Senate and high polling among Pennsyvania voters — polls show legalizing medical marijuana has the support of upwards of 88% of Keystone State voters — it seems that Rep. Matt Baker may single handedly prevented access to medical marijuana for his constituents.
Baker said he was “very disappointed” that the Senate voted to approve the medical marijuana bill, even though the bill was tightly regulated and would have banned smoking and edible sales, and only would have allowed vaporization for a few pre-approved conditions.
“It is amazing when you consider the strong opposition of the expert medical and scientific community that appeared to be ignored,” Baker said, adding that the only drugs that should be allowed in the Commonwealth are those that are authorized through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval process.
According to Rep. Baker, one of the main reasons to not advance Senate Bill 3 is because cannabis is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That, however, did not stop Rep. Baker from accepting campaign contributions from multiple pharmaceutical companies who have combined to pay over $1 billion to settle charges that they were marketing drugs for uses not approved by the FDA.
The proposed bill would limit the use of medical marijuana to patients suffering from 15 specific conditions: cancer; epilepsy and seizures; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); cachexia/wasting syndrome; Parkinson’s disease; traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-concussion syndrome; multiple sclerosis; spinocerebellara ataxia (SCA); post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); severe fibromyalgia; HIV/AIDS; glaucoma; Chron’s disease; diabetes; and chronic pain “where other methods of treatment no longer have therapeutic or palliative benefit.”
It may — or may not — come as a surprise to see that the majority of reported campaign contributions come from companies that manufacture drugs that treat many of those qualifying conditions.
Public campaign finance records show significant contributions from pharmaceutical companies that could potentially profit from the continued prohibition of plant-derived medicine. Most of the pharmaceutical companies that contributed to Baker’s election campaigns manufacture or market drugs that treat conditions that would be eligible for the medical marijuana program proposed in Senate Bill 3.
When breaking down campaign contributions by industry, the pharmaceutical and healthcare product industry made up the largest percentage of reported contributions, totaling $32,800. When looking at individual contributions, Baker received several notable campaign contributions from pharmaceutical manufacturers, pharmacies and drug wholesalers, totaling over $37,000:
|JOHNSON & JOHNSON||$3,400|
|MEDCO HEALTH SOLUTIONS, INC.||$3,000|
|MERCK & CO||$1,750|
|ELI LILLY AND COMPANY||$1,000|
Among Baker’s 2014 campaign contributors is Value Drug, Inc, a Pennsylvania based drug wholesaler that agreed in June 2014 to pay $4 million to resolve allegations that it violated the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) by failing to report suspicious orders of oxycodone to six pharmacies located in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Also among Baker’s contributors is Abbot Laboratories, who agreed to pay at least $1.3 billion in 2011 for illegally marketing its Depakote epilepsy drug to the U.S. government and 24 states. Abbot Laboratories was also under fire in 2012, when the company plead guilty and agreed to pay a $500 million fine and $198.5 million forfeiture for illegal marketing, and in a plea agreement was assessed the second-largest criminal fine in U.S. history for a drug company. That punishment was related to the company’s unlawful promotion of the prescription drug Depakote for uses not approved as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Depakote had only been approved by the FDA for three uses –epileptic seizures, bipolar mania and the prevention of migraines — but Abbot Laboratories marketed the drug as a treatment for psychiatric conditions including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Then there is Medco Health Solutions, a pharmacy benefit management company that was fined $155 million in 2006 for accepting kickbacks from pharmaceutical manufacturers to favor their drugs, and paid kickbacks to health plans to obtain business.
And let’s not forget about Hoffmann-La Roche, who paid $500 million in criminal fines in 1999 after pleading guilty to participation in a worldwide conspiracy to raise and fix prices on vitamins sold in the United States and other countries.
Or AstraZeneca, who makes several drugs to combat cancer, diabetes and other conditions covered under the proposed medical marijuana bill. AstraZeneca paid $520 million in 2010 to settle allegations that they illegally marketed the anti-psychotic drug Seroquel for uses not approved as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration.
And finally, there is AbbVie, Inc, who markets Marinol, a prescription pill that is made of synthetic THC and is used to help stimulate the appetite of AIDS patients. Marinol is the only US FDA-approved synthetic cannabinoid, and is often marketed as a legal pharmaceutical alternative to natural cannabis, according to NORML.
There are also significant campaign contributions from major pharmacy chains CVS and Rite Aid, neither of whom would be permitted under Senate Bill 3 to distribute medical marijuana.
Rep. Baker represents Pennsylvania’s 68th House District, which, according to the 2010 census, is home to 59,039 residents. That represents only .46% — less than half a percent — of Pennsylvania’s total population of 12,702,884.
So what is next for the future of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania?
“The fight to bring even a limited medicinal cannabis program to Pennsylvania is far from over,” says Patrick K. Nightingale, Esq., Executive Director of Pittsburgh NORML. “It seems incredible to activists, patients and supporters that medicinal cannabis enjoys 88% support here in the Commonwealth but the future of a medicinal cannabis bill remains uncertain.”
“It should also come as no surprise to activists and patients alike that Chairman Baker takes his marching orders from the pharmaceutical industry, as they have been his primary donors,” Nightingale says. “No wonder Chairman Baker has the audacity to counsel the parents of severely epileptic children to simply wait for GW Pharmaceuticals to come to the rescue with an anti-seizure drug in 2017.”
“Now we are tasked with the challenge of moving legislation forward in a committee system that all but guarantees that one man can thwart the will of 88% of Pennsylvanians who support medicinal cannabis,” Nightingale added.
Activists are already planning lobbying efforts in Harrisburg, aimed at persuading Rep. Baker to take action on Senate Bill 3.
“He does not yet understand the political weight and pressure we are about to bring down on him.” says Les Stark of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition. “It’s easier to turn up the heat on one man than the entire General Assembly.”
“It’s going to be a wild ride,” Stark added.