Panel debates merits of legalizing marijuana use

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The cost to incarcerate prisoners in the United States -- including nonviolent marijuana offenders -- averages about $26,000 per year.

Certainly, said Federal Public Defender Lisa Freeland, there are better ways to spend the government's money.

Even so -- as part of a panel at Duquesne University's Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law on Friday-- she was not willing to go so far as to say marijuana should be legalized.

"I'm not here to advocate for the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana or any other drug," Ms. Freeland said. But, she continued, the public must know, "There are substantial costs -- both financial and human," to the continuing high rate of incarceration in the United States.

About 500,000 people in this country are currently incarcerated on drug offenses.

Those include tens of thousands of people being held for crimes involving marijuana.

At the continuing legal education seminar on Friday, medical and legal experts debated the issues of legalizing either medical or recreational marijuana use.

None of the panelists would go so far as to advocate legalizing recreational marijuana like Proposition 19 in California would have done had it not been defeated 54 to 46 percent at the polls this week.

But Dr. Wecht did say he found the idea of withholding medical marijuana from people suffering from cancer, or neurological diseases "absurd."

He disputed a 2006 FDA study which concluded there were absolutely no medical benefits from marijuana.

"That kind of unequivocal statement simply flies in the face of reality," Dr. Wecht said. "It is, indeed, a mixed bag. To say there are no benefits is simply fallacious."

He went on to say that out of the 17,000 autopsies he's performed -- and another 36,000 that he's reviewed --he's never once determined a cause of death to be from marijuana toxicity.

Former U.S. Attorney Frederick Thieman spoke about the increased potency of marijuana now, and that emergency room visits for marijuana went up six-fold between 1990 and 2000.

He told the audience that he believed that legalizing even medicinal marijuana could lead young people to think of it as a harmless -- if not good -- product, and that could be dangerous.

Further, he believes there has not been enough research to suggest there is value to medicinal marijuana, though it has been approved for such use in 14 states.

Even though he spoke about the potential dangers of marijuana, Mr. Thieman also noted that as a federal prosecutor, he rarely took on a case for pot.

"During the four years I was U.S. attorney, we may have prosecuted one marijuana case, and if we did, it was measured in tons, not kilos or ounces."


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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