Pa. bill would legalize marijuana as therapeutic option


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They're lighting up joints in Bryn Mawr and Squirrel Hill after putting the kids to bed.

At Abay, an ultra-hip eatery in East Liberty, pro-medical marijuana activists are recruiting and organizing new members over martinis.

And in Harrisburg, some legislators are pushing for passage of a bill that would make Pennsylvania the 15th state to legalize medical marijuana -- if New York and Maryland don't beat them to it.

Pot is hot.

Long known as America's most widely used illicit drug, marijuana is no longer just a habit for aging baby boomers reliving the '60s. Fragile multiple sclerosis sufferers and chemo patients swear by it. In the movies, positive images abound: In "It's Complicated," Santa Barbara matron Meryl Streep gets stoned to hilarious effect, while on television's "Nurse Jackie," Edie Falco helps a chemo patient fashion a bong for his joint.

While U.S. marijuana use has shown a consistent decline since the mid-1990s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, that trend has stalled, with prevalence rates the same in 2009 as they were five years ago.

And back in the real world, affluent forty-somethings are lighting up after work, giving new meaning to "Happy Hour."

Just ask Lisa (not her real name).

"Let me shut the door," she said during a telephone interview from her Downtown office where she works for a financial institution. A self-described "urban professional and mom" and wife of a successful lawyer, she likes to sit in her sleek, granite-and-maple kitchen in Squirrel Hill on Friday nights and de-stress with a joint.

"I do it once a week," Lisa said. "It's a nice release from the week's tensions, and I can feel my body calming down -- and it's less calories than wine," she added with a laugh.

Even as the drug war continues to rage along our nation's borders and the Drug Enforcement Administration's website declares marijuana to be "dangerous," even as Congress refuses to repeal its declaration that smoked marijuana is without "current medical benefit," recreational use of marijuana has continued unabated in this country.

Now, California -- the first state to allow medical marijuana use -- will vote in November on a ballot initiative legalizing all pot use.

A new RAND Corp. study released last week found, however, that while legalizing marijuana could increase consumption, it would also cut the drug's price by as much as 80 percent -- making it unlikely that the cash-strapped state will realize projections for $1 billion in revenue.

If legalization regulating and taxing the sale of pot passes -- and a recent California poll found support for the measure at more than 50 percent -- other states will surely follow.

Just not Pennsylvania.

A recent Franklin & Marshall poll found that 81 percent of Pennsylvanians supported making medical marijuana legal -- up from 76 percent in 2006. But a medical marijuana bill was introduced only a year ago in the state House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor oppose it.

The measure has not come up for a vote in either chamber. Still, medical marijuana's passage in Pennsylvania is only a matter of time, said Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, sponsor of the House bill.

"There's real momentum" for the bill, said Mr. Cohen, whose father suffers from Crohn's disease. The time has come, he believes, to expand medical options to alleviate patient suffering, citing research that has found marijuana can be therapeutic in treating Crohn's, cancer, glaucoma and other debilitating conditions.

Karen would agree. A restaurant manager in Westmoreland County who asked that her real name not be used, she has suffered from bulimia for the past 10 years. In addition to therapy, she's found that marijuana is more effective than antidepressants at soothing her stomach and increasing her desire to eat.

"I was on Xanax, but it irritated my stomach, and it's easy to get hooked on, whereas with marijuana, if I miss a day, it's not the end of the world," she said. "I'm not going to go out and rob a bank so I can get some."

All of this may be true, but what really seems to be driving the bill is the need for new revenue. The RAND report notwithstanding, a tax on medical marijuana could add millions to state coffers that weren't there before. Plus, the fact that so many other states have passed similar laws -- most recently New Jersey, on whom Pennsylvania's law is based, plus pending approval by New York, Maryland, Minnesota and New Hampshire -- may improve the bill's chances, he said.

"Combined with New Jersey, that will mean we're all but surrounded," said Mr. Cohen.

Still, he hastened to add, Pennsylvania will not follow California's example in administering the law.

In Los Angeles, dubbed "The Wild West of Weed" by Newsweek last fall, medical marijuana dispensaries have popped up on every corner. There have been robberies and shootings at the cash-only shops, and otherwise healthy young people with "back pain" are wangling permission from unscrupulous doctors to obtain the drug.

Under proposed legislation, Pennsylvania's program would be far more restrictive, Mr. Cohen said, with jurisdiction over it assigned to the state's Departments of Revenue and Health. It would permit personal cultivation of up to six plants and would establish a distribution system regulated by the health department.

"Pennsylvania has a very active medical board of licensure," he said, "and I'm sure nothing will happen like California, where you've got doctors located a few steps from the beach."

Still, it would face a likely veto from whoever occupies the governor's office. Both Democrat Dan Onorato and Republican Tom Corbett oppose medical marijuana legislation, and many law enforcement officials remain adamantly adverse to it -- even if police in the Pittsburgh area and Philadelphia don't pursue cases involving first-time offenses and small amounts of the drug as aggressively as other drug cases.

The tendency is to work them out as summary offenses, said Mike Manko, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., adding, however, that "any time a drug case comes in, even at preliminary hearing level, they'll always check with our narcotics unit to make sure this isn't someone known to them."

In Philadelphia's jammed courts, marijuana arrests are usually the last cases to be heard during the day, and because an arresting officer can't wait for hours, the judge usually just throws out the case, said Lynn Abraham, that city's former district attorney and a vocal opponent of efforts to loosen marijuana laws, including medical marijuana.

"Why is it that in California most people using it are 20 to 35 years old? Give me a break. Is this what we want to become in Pennsylvania?" she asked. "A pleasure palace? Yikes. We're just going to turn into a bunch of spoiled, self-indulgent dope heads."

Others in the field of drug addiction oppose the bill for different reasons. Medical marijuana's efficacy should be determined by scientific research and the FDA approval process, not by politicians, said Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center.

"I do believe marijuana has medicinal properties, so let's evaluate it like other medicines," he said.

That's just the problem, pro-pot activists said -- federal drug policies don't allow research into smoked marijuana.

Because marijuana is classified by federal statute as a Schedule I drug -- along with heroin -- researchers are prohibited from providing it to study participants , although compounds extracted from cannabis can be used in clinical trials. Marinol, a synthetic version of pot's active ingredient, THC, is available by prescription for relieving nausea, and Sativex, which contains THC and other cannabinoids, is undergoing FDA scrutiny. If made available, it may be so effective for MS and cancer sufferers it may make the medical marijuana debate moot.

Scientific research into marijuana's risks has found that smoking marijuana does damage the lungs, and it can impair brain function for longer periods of time than alcohol while driving. And while pot is not considered physically addictive for most adults, pot smoking can be risky for young people.

A current study at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School's Department of Psychiatry has recruited 20 people -- half of them heavy pot smokers -- to explore whether smoking marijuana under age 14 increases the risk of schizophrenia, as has been indicated in some studies.

The Obama administration has declared it will not use federal money to prosecute low-level medical marijuana cases as long as the defendants are complying with state law. But federal drug policy remains unchanged and marijuana's legalization remains so politically fraught that it makes "any rational approach unlikely," said Peter Cohen, a physician and an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University who has written extensively on the issue.

"It will be interesting to see what the Department of Justice does should recreational marijuana be legalized," he said. If California makes all pot use legal, "at that point there will be a direct conflict between state and federal law, and the Obama administration will probably have no choice but to take action against California's legalization.

Patrick Nightingale, a local attorney and head of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said his group isn't using medical marijuana as a stalking horse for future legalization of all marijuana use.

At a recent meeting with medical marijuana supporters, he vigorously urged recruits to get involved with efforts to lobby legislators for passage of a medical-use bill.

It was, in fact, the proverbial smoke-filled back room -- in this case, the cave-like Ava Lounge in East Liberty -- where incense curled languorously from ashtrays and mostly young, healthy-looking people lounged on banquettes. Carefully balancing a martini, Mr. Nightingale walked through the state's legislation and asked for volunteers.

A lot of people raised their hands, and, in fact, public reaction across the state in favor of the bill has been overwhelming.

"I've been here 25 years, and I've never seen more public reaction to any bill," said Leon Czikowsky, an aide to Mr. Cohen.

No surprise there: Pro-pot activists are a highly vocal, well-organized, well-funded constituency, as the Obama administration found to its chagrin during the transition after the 2008 election when it created an online site for people to submit ideas to the president under a "crowdsourcing" model in which the "best-rated" ideas would rise to the top.

The highest ranking idea? Legalization of marijuana -- along with revoking the Church of Scientology's tax-exempt status.


Correction/Clarification: (Published July 12, 2010) Cocaine is a Schedule II drug. This story as originally published July 11, 2010 about marijuana incorrectly identified cocaine as a Schedule I drug.
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 13, 2010) This story as originally published July 11, 2010 about marijuana misidentified the location of a meeting of the Pittsburgh chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). It was the Ava Lounge in East Liberty, not the Abay bar.

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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