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For parents, a tough choice: ignore a drug that could help a sick child or risk jail time

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Above all else, Deena Kenney describes herself as a mother who wants what is best for her son.Under current law, the state of Pennsylvania says she can’t.

Kenney’s 17-year old son, Christopher, suffers hundreds of seizures each week because of a rare medical condition known as tuberous sclerosis, which causes parts of the brain to harden. Christopher’s seizures began when he was just 6 weeks old, and years of surgeries, treatments, drugs and clinical trials have failed to stop them.

Like any mother, Kenney is willing to try anything that might help her son live something like a normal life.

She doesn’t know if medical marijuana would improve Christopher’s condition, but she knows it won’t damage his kidneys, turn his skin blue or cause blindness — all potential side effects of legal drugs that Kenney has used in one failed effort after another to bring Christopher’s condition under control.

MEDICAL POT: Though its legal in 20 other states, growing or using marijuana for medical purposes in Pennsylvania can land you in jail for years.

“I would like the opportunity to try medical cannabis for my son’s seizures but I can’t because there are outdated laws that prevent me from doing so,” said Kenney, a resident of Bethlehem. “Laws that were made before we had the scientific ability to effectively study this plant . Laws that say it is dangerous.”

Medical cannabis is legal in 20 states and Washington, D.C., but it’s still outlawed in Pennsylvania.

That leaves people like Kenney and other caregivers in a difficult situation. They can try to move their whole family away from their home — and the doctors that have been treating their children for years — to a state where medical cannabis is legal, or they can risk jail time by obtaining medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, a felony offense.

Patrick Nightingale, a Pittsburgh attorney who serves as head of a local chapter of Norml, a nonprofit working to legalize medical marijuana, has seen the outcomes of those difficult choices.

One of his clients was sentenced to a year in prison — the judge thought she was being compassionate for not applying the recommended three-year sentence, Nightingale said — after growing his own marijuana for medicinal purposes to treat chronic facial spasms.

Legal drugs like morphine, oxycodone and valium weren’t doing the trick. His home-grown marijuana did.

But then he suffered a seizure and had to call for emergency help. The responders saw the marijuana plants and Nightingale’s client ended up in prison, where he spent most of his one-year sentence in the infirmary at a state penitentiary, costing taxpayers even more in medical treatments.

Nightingale said he knows not every person growing marijuana is doing so for medical purposes, and he’s met plenty of drug dealers in his time as a defense attorney.

“However, I have met numerous law abiding, hard-working people who have unwittingly subjected themselves to mandatory minimum sentences and felony convictions because they believed it better to try and grow marijuana at home instead of entering the world of drug dealers and drug trafficking,” he told the committee Wednesday.

If an odd pairing of state lawmakers have their way, growers and users of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania will no longer have to live with the choice between jail time and treating their conditions.

“There are a lot of misconceptions that we don’t understand,” said state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, who used to oppose legalization of medical marijuana until he started researching the subject.

Now, Folmer, known as one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly, is one of two lead sponsors to SB 1182, which would legalize medical marijuana in the state. He hopes the “potentially wonderful medication could soon be in the hands of every Pennsylvanian.”

His colleague, state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, one of the most liberal members of the Legislature and a long-time proponent for legal marijuana — even for recreational use — appreciates the significance of Folmer’s support.

“It’s much easier for me than it is for him, politically,” Leach said this week.

But there’s still no clear indication that Pennsylvania will legalize the drug anytime soon.

A hearing this week with the state Senate Law and Justice Committee was a high water mark for activists who have been working for years just to get the state government to pay attention to their plight.

“I am thankful that my colleagues decided to consider this bill today, as it is of critical importance,” Leach said.

State Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, chairman of the committee, said the hearing was intended to gather information and wouldn’t commit to having a vote on the bill.

The parents, like Kenney, who told the committee why they would like to try medical marijuana as a treatment for their seizure-stricken children, hope the law is changed soon.

She knows prohibition has done little to stop people from using marijuana. She just wants to be able to let Christopher use it without the risk they will both end up in jail.

“As marijuana is ubiquitous in our society, it appears as though the laws have done little to stop it from getting into the wrong hands, but rather prevents it from getting into the right ones,” she said.



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