Philly marijuana advocates pushing for full legalization
In their most recent “Politically Uncorrected” column, G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young reflect on the most recent Franklin and Marshall polling of Pennsylvania voters by calling marijuana legalization “arguably the litmus test of whether one is culturally conservative or liberal.” They continue to note that while recreational marijuana is still opposed by a majority of Pennsylvania residents (54 percent), support for recreational use of the plant has increased almost 75 percent in less than a decade. And medicinal use stands at around 80 percent approval.
“At this rate of change,” they conclude, “a majority of Pennsylvanians might favor recreational marijuana before this decade ends and possibly sooner.”
Pennsylvania’s marijuana advocates are counting on it. Since mid-December, PhillyNORML, an advocacy group dedicated to marijuana-related issues, and local comedy troupe the Panic Hour have held four “Smoke Down Prohibition” events at Independence Mall to raise awareness related to the “prohibition of cannabis” and to bring attention to legalization efforts in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and nationally.
After a successful, peaceful event on April 20th, they’ve set another gathering this weekend where participants will engage “in clear acts of protest and/or civil disobedience to highlight the failed policy of the federal cannabis prohibition,” according to a news release.
“The cannabis legalization movement across this country and here in Philadelphia have been rejuvenated by recent victories in Washington and Colorado,” said Kevin Clough, an organizer with PhillyNORML, when contacted by PW. “We believe that reform isn’t a matter of if, but when.”
And he’s probably right. Washington and Colorado legalized recreational weed in November.
On April 3, State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-MontCo) introduced the “Regulate Marijuana Act”, alongside co-sponsors Sens. Farnese (D-Philadelphia) and Ferlo (D-Allegheny), which would legalize recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania, making it “a regulated product, treated in a way similar to how alcohol is treated,” according to Leach’s original memo on the bill. His bill would legalize the consumption of pot for adults 21 and over.
The senator, who is running for Rep. Allyson Schwartz’s U.S. Congressional seat in 2014 (which includes parts of north and northeast Philly), additionally noted: “Our foolish, ill-conceived, costly and destructive policy must end … People across our Commonwealth have spent time in prison, lost time at work, been forced to hire lawyers and had their lives disrupted,” Leach continued, “and sometimes destroyed because they used a product less dangerous than beer, less risky than children’s cough syrup and less addictive than chocolate.”
In addition to their five Smoke Down Prohibition events over five months, the Philly group hosted the first Mid-Atlantic region NORML conference and is looking to expand its current actions with lobbying days in Harrisburg. They’re training via an affiliated student group, the Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an international group focused on building schools instead of prisons.
According to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System, there were 26,132 total marijuana arrests in the commonwealth in 2011. In Philadelphia, there were 6,895 arrests, most of which were for simple possession. And more than half of all Philly alleged pot offenders were black.
District Attorney Seth Williams has attempted to deal with this. Sort of. In 2010, he ceased criminal prosecutions for minor marijuana offenses, saving an estimated $2 million. The program he put in place, called Small Amount of Marijuana (SAM), allows defendants to have their charges “administratively withdrawn” if they pay $200 and take a drug class. However, those defendants are still handcuffed, fingerprinted and often made to spend the night in jail.
On Tuesday, Decarcerate PA, a statewide organization dedicated to downsizing the state’s prison population and halt prison construction in Pennsylvania, announced they’d be marching 113 miles from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to “show legislators how serious we are about ending mass incarceration,” according to DPA member Joshua Glenn.
The group has dedicated much of their advocacy over the past year-plus to stopping construction of two new prisons in Montgomery County. NORML advocates believe these issues are intertwined.
“In a time when Governor Corbett is spending hundreds of millions to build new prisons, we could be using that money to build schools and improve our communities. Pennsylvanians deserve better than that, and that’s why we need to change these outdated and unjust laws regarding marijuana prohibition,” the Panic Hour organizers noted in the news release surrounding this weekend’s event.
“We’re also seeing privatized prisons open in the state and schools closing throughout the state,” notes Clough. “This is a disturbing trend that needs to end. We are filling our prisons with non-violent offenders for a plant that does less harm than its prohibition. We are seeing tax dollars wasted.” Over $300 million is spent by the state each year prosecuting marijuana offenders.
Incredibly, Pennsylvania’s prison population has grown by 500 percent since 1980, with 55 percent of that growth directly relating to “nonviolent drug and property crime.” Gov. Corbett’s latest budget increased prison spending by 11 percent, though that stat has yet to come out the other side of the Legislature.
Nationally, the movement to legalize has hit new heights. Polls show more than 50 percent of Americans now favor recreational pot, and medicinal use is normal in 18 states across the U.S. Twelve states, including Pennsylvania, have pending legislation to legalize it for medicine.
Rep. Mark Cohen (D-Phila) has introduced a medical marijuana bill to the state House titled the Governor Raymond P. Shafer Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, named after the former Republican Pennsylvania governor of the same name. In 1971, Shafer was picked by then-President Richard Nixon to direct the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, and Shafer not only recommended that personal possession of pot be decriminalized, but that it be used in “therapeutic settings” to treat “glaucoma, migraine, alcoholism and terminal cancer.” Nixon was not happy about that.
Cohen’s bill, though introduced for the first time in 2009, has never received a vote, though it did get hearings. The Shafer Act would require people to register as medical marijuana patients and pay a $50 fee after getting the recommendation from a doctor. (Leach has also introduced a medical marijuana bill in the State Senate, which was referred to the Public Health and Welfare Committee on April 3rd.)
Cohen recently used similar anti-crime language to defend his own bill: “By legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, there should be a reduction in criminal prosecutions, as well as a weakening of the existing criminal networks selling marijuana,” he said, adding his estimates put taxing medical marijuana at around $25 million in revenue, per year, about the same Leach estimates could be raised by taxing recreational pot.
But there are problems with medical legalization. New Jersey, for instance, legalized medical marijuana three years ago. Today, only one distribution center remains open, even though six alternative treatment facilities were authorized by the state. (Two are scheduled to open in the fall.)
“We count ourselves lucky not to have an over-regulated medical program like [New Jersey],” says Clough. “We feel programs like these are a step backwards, and we’re only seeing a small minority of patients that could benefit from medical cannabis getting access to their medicine.”
After coming into office, Gov. Christie delayed and then restricted access to medical marijuana. There are 12 conditions in New Jersey which qualify patients for access to medical marijuana, and “the MMP will not accept any petition to add to the approved list of debilitating medical conditions before completing at least two annual reports,” according to New Jersey’s Department of Health.
So, let it be known: Philly’s marijuana advocates are going big. It’s full legalization or bust. They’re doing it for the kids, the schools, state revenue, the prison inmates and the sick.
“We feel the benefits of taxing and regulating cannabis is the best way to rejuvenate our economy while ensuring only adults have access,” adds Clough. “This is a very exciting time to be a marijuana activist.”
Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso