HARRISBURG - Hundreds of cheering families, legislators and patients watched Gov. Wolf sign a medical marijuana bill into law Sunday afternoon, many hopeful at last for relief from debilitating pain, seizures and other medical conditions.
Allie Delp watched from her mother's lap, purple sunglasses strapped around her wide blue eyes to protect them from the light. Large crowds are tough for Allie. The 4-year-old suffers from Dravet syndrome, a severe seizure disorder, and most days she stays in the dimly lit, cool comforts of her home to avoid triggers. Today was too important not to make the drive from Ford City, said Allie's mother, Amanda Delp.
"It feels like a dream. It really does," Delp said. "If you would have asked me four years ago if I would be advocating for medical marijuana, I would have told you it's just people wanting to get high. It took my daughter for me to open my eyes and realize it can save people."
A row away from Allie, Robert Billhime Jr., 45, sat with his girlfriend and 6-week-old napping son, Aspen. Multiple back surgeries left Billhime addicted to painkillers three years ago. He lost his job, his home. Addiction nearly cost him his life, he said. "If it wasn't for the cannabis I wouldn't be here. I won't go back. I won't be an addict," he said wiping a tear from his eye and looking down at his son.
Billhime called the day a huge step in the right direction but said discrimination and misunderstanding persist. "It's still not going to change the bigotry already in the legal system. If you're a cannabis user, legal or not, you're prejudged simply because you refuse to be an addict."
Billhime said he almost lost custody of his children because the family court judge ordered he take a drug test while he was using cannabis for back pain. He had supervised visitations for six months.
In the packed rotunda Sunday there were hundreds of stories like these. People trying to make it through their pain, determined, loving parents doing whatever they could - and then some for their kids. Wearing green for cannabis - and purple, for epilepsy awareness - they erupted in cheers as Wolf signed the bill into law.
Wolf thanked the advocates, particularly the mothers who brought their kids to rally at the Capitol to give a face to the people the legalization would benefit.
"When you have people who represent a cause as eloquently and in as heartfelt a way as the advocates for this has done, it shows we can get something done that means something," Wolf said. "We're not responding to a special interest here; we're not responding to someone who makes campaign contributions - we're responding to people who are telling us there is a real human need here in Pennsylvania."
There was much congratulating among legislators for bipartisan work on the bill.
"We won!" Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon), who rallied Republicans, said to a roar as he took the podium. "This is your day!"
Democratic Sen. Daylin Leach, who represents parts of Delaware and Montgomery Counties, recalled introducing a medical marijuana bill in 2010 and failing to find a single cosigner. "The pain of illness touches us all eventually and so we all united to defeat [pain] . . . We worked together, we studied, we begged, we cajoled and we argued - and we convinced our fellow legislators to join us."
The law allows people suffering from 17 specified conditions - including cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and seizures - to access medical marijuana in pill, oil, or ointment form at dispensaries statewide.
The Department of Health is expected to oversee what will become a new industry in Pennsylvania, with dozens of dispensaries, hundreds of workers and potentially thousands of patients. Patients would use identification cards, after receiving a doctor's prescription, to access marijuana from one of 150 dispensaries statewide. All dispensaries would be licensed by the state and face intense regulation.
Getting the system up and running could take more than 18 months before a patient can actually access medical marijuana. A provision in the bill allows families with children under 18 to obtain medical marijuana from other states where it is legal without fear of prosecution.
Temporary regulations are also expected to be written to permit adults access if they can demonstrate they suffer from one of the 17 conditions listed in the legislation.
Delp hopes to use that provision to get Allie cannabis oil in the near future. Her daughter has as many as 80 seizures a month, she said. One in five children with Dravet doesn't live to adulthood, Delp said. Many are mentally challenged and require care the rest of their lives.
"Cannabis not only gives us hope to help control the seizures, but there are children in legal states where it's been shown to help their cognition," Delp said. "Maybe she'll be able to catch up, lead a normal life."
Allie is an active tomboy (she did barefoot laps around the rotunda before the bill-signing got under way). She doesn't know to avoid triggers for the seizures that threaten her life.
"She loves riding her four-wheeler, chasing her sisters around, just being a kid," Delp said. "This - it won't solve everything - but it gives us hope, and we need hope."