The one person who should have been in Hearing Room 8E-A/B of the Pennsylvania Capitol, at 10:25 a.m. Tuesday, was not there.
Moments before the start of a hearing held by the state Senate Law & Justice Committee, 10-year-old Hannah Pallas of Butler County had an epileptic seizure, one of at least 100 she has each week.
Some are mild, but this one was very bad, what's called a grand mal seizure, so she had to be taken to a hospital, meaning her mother could not testify in person before the committee, as scheduled.
That hearing made history. It was the first time the Pennsylvania power structure allowed an official public discussion on a proposal favored by 96 percent of the state's medical community (according to a poll by the New England Journal of Medicine). Senate Bill 1182 provides for the medical use of marijuana to help people like Hannah.
The one politician who should have been at that hearing room is Gov. Tom Corbett, who has vowed to veto any such legislation. The victims of epilepsy, cancer, asthma, glaucoma and many other ailments do not seem to be among his top priorities.
Twenty states now allow such victims to be treated with substances derived from marijuana or marijuana itself, which has been reported to work far better than federally approved pharmaceutical products. As usual, there is resistance to doing that in all of the Bible Belt states and several other states (including Pennsylvania) that often can be almost as backward.
State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, has been introducing legislation to allow medical marijuana since early 2009, but legislative bosses, especially the Republicans, have kept it completely buried in committee without the slightest opportunity for discussion — until now.
Tuesday's hearing was momentous, especially in its refreshing bipartisan flavor. Leach's bill now has another chief sponsor, a respected and influential Republican, state Sen. Mike Folmer of Lebanon County. Also, the chairman of the Law & Justice Committee, state Sen. Charles McIlhinney Jr., R-Bucks, sounded downright compassionate as he presided.
(I was unable to make it to Harrisburg for the hearing, but watched it on the Internet.)
Hannah's mother could not testify when the hearing began, but her moving statement was read into the record. "She [Hannah] no longer smiles, laughs, feeds herself or enjoys life," it said. "My daughter is quickly diminishing away." Such misery for epileptics, she and others noted, has been effectively treated with marijuana while other medications have failed.
Two other mothers, including Deena Kenney of Bethlehem, gave compelling testimony about how their children are suffering because of the denial of marijuana as a treatment.
Kenney testified about her son, Chris, 17, who has "uncontrollable seizures" caused by brain tumors. She said the federally approved medications available to her son inflict gruesome side effects, including terrible violence. Kenney spoke with a helmet, which she must wear in the house at such times, displayed in front of her.
Noting that marijuana is "ubiquitous," she said "the laws have done little to stop it from getting into the wrong hands, but rather it [the law] prevents it from getting into the right ones, which are ours."
After Tuesday's hearing, I asked Kenney about Gov. Corbett. "He was not there. He has been ignoring us for a long time," she said. "He refuses to meet with us."
I also talked to Leach. "It's the first legislative hearing on a medical cannabis bill that I'm aware of, in Pennsylvania history," he told me.
I asked him how the hearing went.
"I thought things were amazing," Leach said. "Sen. Tony Williams [of Philadelphia] went in opposing it, and came out supporting the bill." Leach said Williams was so moved by the testimony he decided to sign on as a co-sponsor of the bill.
Leach said he saw the grand mal seizure by the Butler County girl as the hearing was about to begin. "It's hard to watch," he said, adding that he'd never seen one before.
I've seen many. My late aunt Dorothy was on the staff of an epileptic center in New York and they can be devastating. I asked Leach if he wished the governor had seen it. "Yeah," he said. "One would like to think that would have affected him in some way."
As reported Wednesday in The Morning Call, Jay Pagni, spokesman for the governor, said Corbett is opposed to medical marijuana because only the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can decide drug issues.
Oh, really? Drugs are the exclusive domain of the feds? Does that mean Corbett will spring all the thousands of people in state prisons under state drug laws?
I want Corbett to look Kenney in the eye and tell her that her plight is less important than his need to obsequiously bow to the feds. I want him to tell her that while 20 other states manage to allow the successful treatment of seizures and other problems with marijuana, Pennsylvania must stick to its punctilious Bible Belt guns.
I want Corbett to tell parents, in person, why he lacks the guts or integrity to accommodate the needs of people whose suffering could be eased if only he'd promise to sign SB 1182.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays