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Legalize PA brings Pittsburgh musicians into the war over marijuana


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Pittsburgh musicians enter the discussion on the legalization of marijuana Saturday at Mr. Smalls and -- guess what -- they're all for it. Even if they don't use it themselves.

Hanger Jam: Legalize PA, which features the diverse lineup of Good Brother Earl, BEAM, Truth and Rites, Josh Verbanets and Jasiri X, was initially conceived as a benefit for the gubernatorial campaign of John Hanger.

Hunger Jam: Legalize PA

With: Josh Verbanets, Good Brother Earl, Truth and Rites, JasiriX and BEAM.

Where: Mr. Smalls, Millvale.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: $15; 18 and over; mrsmalls.com.

The former state environmental protection chief, who was endorsed by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), advocated a three-step plan that would begin with the legalization of medical marijuana and make recreational use legal by 2017. He dropped out of the race in March, failing to match the war chest of other candidates, including frontrunner Tom Wolf, a York businessman who contributed $10 million to his own campaign.

Legalize PA organizer Ben Shannon said Mr. Hanger's campaign "made me excited for the future of Pennsylvania."

"Personally," he said, "I have one family member and one friend who use marijuana out of necessity. After trying every other option, smoking marijuana is the only treatment that works for them."

Medical marijuana is lawful in 20 states, and last year voters in Washington and Colorado made it legal for recreational use as well. In Pennsylvania, two state senators -- conservative Republican Mike Folmer of Lebanon and liberal Democrat Daylin Leach of suburban Philadelphia -- have reached across the aisle to introduce Senate Bill 1182, the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act.

Mr. Folmer, who describes himself as a "Bible-believing Presbyterian," backs it, saying that medical cannibas, which does not provide a "high," is helpful for patients suffering seizures and the effects of chemotherapy. Although it has multiple co-sponsors and wide-ranging support, Gov. Tom Corbett has said he would veto any effort to legalize medical cannabis.

Mr. Shannon, a singer-songwriter and high school English teacher, said, "As a matter of principle I proactively discourage drug and alcohol abuse among my students. I don't see my political position on this issue as a contradiction with my work with children. Marijuana prohibition is basically a distorted form of bullying that has hampered our economy and harmed families more than the plant itself ever could."

He decided to take action with this benefit show and sought out national acts with local roots, such as, naturally, Wiz Khalifa, widely known for love of his marijuana.

"Most of these acts were actually asking for $100,000 a show at the low end of their fee scale," he says. "It quickly became clear that I would need to headline with local acts. So I put together a mix of artists who had some national exposure and some local draw with the hopes that each artist would elevate the next."

Among the artists to sign on was nationally known Pittsburgh-based Jasiri X, a political rapper who comes to the event with more of a social agenda.

"Even though I don't smoke myself," Jasiri said, "I realize these small marijuana busts are used to mass incarcerate black men for something the last three presidents all admitted doing, which is smoking weed."

In January, President Barack Obama told The New Yorker that while he smoked pot as a young man, "It's not something I encourage, and I've told my daughters I think it's a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy."

He went on to say that he was troubled by the disproportionate amount of arrests and incarcerations among minorities.

"Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do .... We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing."

Although the federal government allowed for the legalization to move forward in Washington and Colorado, marijuana remains on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act with such drugs as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine as having no accepted medical use in treatment.

Parting ways with the president, Drug Enforcement Administration head Michele Leonhart said in that House Appropriations subcommittee meeting this month that voters in Washington and Colorado were misled about the economic benefits of legalizing marijuana and that Mexican drug cartels were "setting up shop" in those states.

In a recent Post-Gazette op-ed piece, former Allegheny County coroner and medical examiner Cyril Wecht wrote, "I do not believe marijuana should be made available on the open market, such as recently permitted in Colorado and Washington ..." but added, "A scientifically objective, societally reasonable and legally just approach should be adopted that would allow for the appropriate medical use of marijuana," which he called "a relatively mild drug that does not lead to death and which can alleviate physical and emotional pain and suffering."

Mr. Shannon said "local businesses have been happy to hang the posters and support the cause" and that while some people are tearing them down, others are offering to pay to get a copy.

With Mr. Hanger out of the race and none of the gubernatorial candidates speaking out on the issue, proceeds will go to NORML, which is not otherwise affiliated with the show.


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