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April 23, 2016

Pennsylvania: the next state to legalize recreational marijuana?

Advocates think it's the next step, but opponents warn weed is a 'gateway drug'

Medical marijuana is now legal for many Pennsylvanians who need it, though it will likely be many months before it is available in state.

So what about for those who simply want to smoke a joint recreationally – without fear of legal repercussions?

“Pennsylvania can only do so many things at a time,” cautioned state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, a driving force behind the law making the drug available for patients suffering from one of 17 qualifying conditions. Advocates and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers rejoiced last week in Harrisburg when Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bill into law.


2016 ELECTION: California voters approve recreational marijuana | Florida voters approve medical marijuana ballot measure


It was a banner day for caregivers and patients alike. Leach noted last year that his bill to legalize the drug for recreational use was a more difficult sell than medical marijuana for sick people to those skeptical of its benefits — not to mention a more pressing issue. 

Marc Levy/AP Photo

Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, gets a hug in the Pennsylvania Capitol from a supporter of medical marijuana legislation after the state House of Representatives voted to send the bill to Gov. Tom Wolf's desk, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Harrisburg, Pa. Leach was an original and vocal supporter of the legislation. Wolf signed the bill into law April 17.

Leach’s recreational use bill called for regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, and would have made Pennsylvania the fifth state (plus Washington, D.C.) to legalize possession of small amounts of the drug. But the measure has sat idle in the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee since February 2015. 

Since then, the senator’s arguments for full legalization remain basically the same: You create a new industry and bring revenue to the state, you make it safer for people who use it responsibly, and, most importantly, you’re not “putting a lot of people into the criminal justice system for smoking a plant.”

“Ultimately, (legalizing medical marijuana) will be a good thing toward ending prohibition," said state Sen. Daylin Leach

With implementation of the state’s medical marijuana expected to take about a year-and-a-half, and considering the painstaking legislative process it took just to get the bill to Wolf’s desk, Leach believes full legalization is still far down the road. But he thinks things are moving in the right direction.

Medical marijuana “will ultimately lead to recreational marijuana,” Leach said. “It will de-stigmatize marijuana, it will create marijuana-based institutions.”

“Ultimately, it will be a good thing toward ending prohibition.”

ENDING 'PROHIBITION' 

“Prohibition” (a “horrific” policy, according to Leach) is a word common in the vocabulary of Derek Rosenzweig, technical director for the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Philly NORML).

Framing recreational marijuana's illegality as prohibition – synonymous with the nationwide alcohol ban of the early 20th century – is part of an effort by advocates to reverse the “Reefer Madness” attitude that Rosenzweig says has permeated the national discussion since the release of a 1936 film that called pot “the burning weed with roots in hell.”

Some state legislators “still equate non-medical use to drug abuse,” however, “the debate that surrounded the medical bill helped debunk that” to some degree, according to Rosenzweig.

The perceived stigma not only factors into the likely uphill battle for full legalization, but also bogged down passage of the medical marijuana bill, in Rosenzweig’s mind.

“There are a lot of good things in that bill, but there are a lot of stupid things in that bill,” he said of the new law.

Rosenzweig believes the number of dispensaries (50, each to operate three locations) and growers (25) are both too low, and says the law doesn’t allow for the two most convenient ways of consuming the drug (smoking and vaporizing). Under the law, patients will be able to access the drug in pill, oil or ointment form.

'LEAVING MONEY ON THE TABLE' 

Philly NORML has been working with state Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, at pushing toward full legalization. Together, they’ve got a working draft of a bill that Harris plans to attract co-sponsors for in the near future.

For Harris, it’s difficult to understand why – considering the state’s staggering budget issues – some would oppose a new moneymaker for Pennsylvania.

“We are leaving money on the table when it comes to revenue and tax dollars because we're not legalizing it,” Harris said.

In their first years since legalizing recreational marijuana, Colorado and Washington reported $53 million and $70 million in tax revenue, respectively.

"I visited Colorado and saw how they did the dispensaries in Colorado, and I see how much revenue they're bringing into the state," said Harris.

The logistics of how Pennsylvania would roll out its medical marijuana program was one of the main reasons it bounced back and forth between the House and Senate for nearly a year.

Harris believes he’s already worked out one of the biggest logistical issues for full legalization: use the state-controlled liquor stores as dispensaries. It's an idea supported by UFCW Local 1776, the union representing the workers for state stores.

Wendell Young IV, president of UFCW, says with the infrastructure of state stores already in place, Pennsylvania would reap the benefits of added tax revenue without spending to create massive distribution facilities and programs. 

"We just have to spend a little bit of money modifying the systems we have now and moving things around," Young said. 

'IT'S ABSOLUTELY A GATEWAY DRUG'

To be clear, the bipartisan coalition that passed medical marijuana had its dissenters. Reps. Matthew Baker, R-Bradford, Jerry Knowles, R-Tamaqua, and Chris Dush, R-Indiana, were among the 46 who voted nay. 

They all say they are very sympathetic to the families trying to find treatment for their loved ones, but question not only the effectiveness of marijuana as a treatment option but also how the law was implemented.

"There were a number of young people that started with marijuana who went on to use other drugs, there were people who died and there were people whose lives were ruined." – state Rep. Jerry Knowles 

Knowles says there are two groups. First, the people genuinely trying to help those suffering — such as children who have seizures.

"There are groups that really believe in what they're doing," he said. "I have two grandchildren, I would do anything within my power to help them if they were suffering from multiple seizures."

Then, according to Knowles, there are those who just see medical marijuana as the first step to full legalization. 

"I was a cop in the 1970s," Knowles said. "There were a number of young people that started with marijuana who went on to use other drugs, there were people who died and there were people whose lives were ruined."

All three voted against the medical marijuana bill mainly because they are skeptical of the drug's effectiveness in treating some of the qualifying conditions. (They cite a large number of groups, such as the Pennsylvania Medical Society, who doubt marijuana's ability to treat some of the qualifying conditions). Moreover, they say the new state law defies federal law. 

Dush spent his career in law enforcement before politics, and says his time as a corrections officer has warned him of the real impact of marijuana.

Inmates will, according to Dush, "tell you straight up, marijuana is a gateway drug. They know it zaps motivation."

Baker, chairman of the House Health Committee, was one of the leading voices against the bill, at least in its current form.

"There is a substantial amount of misleading information, causing many to believe that marijuana is harmless and is a panacea and miracle drug for a plethora of medical diseases, when the substantiated medical research that has been conducted up to this point simply does not support these claims," Baker said in an email to PhillyVoice.

Marijuana is just the first step down a dark road, they say.

"I'm not saying everyone who smokes marijuana is going to go on and have a drug problem," said Knowles.

But it does, in Knowles' experience, precede more serious drug use.

"It is absolutely a gateway drug." 

For some legislators, opposition is purely political, according to Leach. He says he’s spoken to several members of the Senate — both Republican and Democrat — who privately support the idea of full legalization, but are hesitant to say so publicly.

Wolf’s current position, according to spokesman Jeff Sheridan, is that he currently opposes legalizing recreational marijuana, but will wait and see how it works out in states like Colorado and Washington.

Well, how is it going? It’s tough to say. The aforementioned revenue gains would likely be welcome in any state – and, more specifically, a governor – looking desperately to find extra funding for its schools.

In both Colorado and Washington, it's still early to fully quantify the overall effects. Colorado's Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he thinks, in hindsight, the 2012 ballot initiative that legalized marijuana was a "bad idea." He said that because the drug remains illegal on a federal level, there was no regulatory framework for them to work with, meaning they had to "start from scratch."

“You don't want to be the first person to do something like this,” he said during a 2015 CNBC interview

Critics of legalization in Colorado released a report last year that claims marijuana-related traffic deaths, hospital visits and usage among teenagers (21 is the legal consumption age) have risen dramatically. 

Brennan Linsley/AP Photo

A woman smokes marijuana during the annual 4/20 marijuana gathering at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver, Wednesday, April 20, 2016.

Yet much of the data used in the report, according to multiple media outlets, leaves ample room for interpretation as to how marijuana was directly related to the incidents cited. 

"There are citizens in Pennsylvania who don't go to the bar, but want to smoke a joint in the privacy in their own home." – Lolly Bentch Myers, co-founder, Campaign for Compassion

Advocates for legalization have also issued reports suggesting Washington and Colorado have seen plenty of benefits, including a drop in violent crime and marijuana-related arrests. 

Wolf does support finding a way to decriminalize the drug. Rep. Leslie Acosta, D-Philadelphia, recently sent House members a memo looking for potential co-sponsors to a bill for statewide decriminalization — something already in place in Philly proper.

The potential legislation would implement fines and possible mandated substance abuse treatment for someone caught with a small amount of marijuana, instead of the current possible punishment of 30 days’ imprisonment and classification of a misdemeanor for amounts under 30 grams.

'THE CLIMATE IS GOING TO CHANGE'

Lolly Bentch Myers is one of the co-founders of Campaign for Compassion, a group that worked for legal medical marijuana. Minus a "dog in the fight” for full legalization, Myers does have a child who suffers from mesial temporal sclerosis, a qualifying condition under the new law, and that's the reason she actively advocated for its passage.

Though her "heart’s not in that" movement, Myers also said she doesn't see how smoking marijuana responsibly is any worse than drinking responsibly. 

"There are citizens in Pennsylvania who don't go to the bar, but want to smoke a joint in the privacy in their own home," said Myers. She claimed research shows marijuana proves to be far less deadly than alcohol. A recent study in the journal Scientific Reports backs up that claim.

Two wrongs don't make a right, however, Knowles said. He notes that alcohol, tobacco and opioids are all pressing issues. 

"So I have an idea, let's legalize marijuana and make everything better," Knowles joked. "Come on. You're just compounding the problem."

Either way, Myers doesn't think it's time yet to "muddy the waters" by introducing an entirely new program before medical marijuana gets going in Pennsylvania. 

Opponents, she believes, will use the "slippery slope" argument, hypothetically contending that approving recreational marijuana will lead to more and more liberal drug policies all around. 

"Slippery slope" isn't such a dirty term, according to Knowles. 

"We're on a slippery slope here," he said. "We will live to regret the day that we [approved medical marijuana] in the way that we did it."

Knowles once again stressed he wished to help those suffering but doesn't want to thumb his nose in the face of the federal government.

Nevertheless, the tide is moving, according to Myers. 

"I think the climate is going to change."