PA Republicans Are Wrong on Medical Marijuana

Two bills sit in Harrisburg limbo as thousands of patients suffer

On Monday, the Daily News ran a cover story about the plight of Colleen Begley, a New Jersey medical marijuana advocate who is facing more than a decade in prison for possessing two pounds of pot that she says were destined for people with ailments ranging from migraine headaches to AIDS.

At first glance Begley’s case is not unlike thousands of others across the country involving American citizens who are being—or have been—prosecuted under archaic drug laws that place pot in the same category as heroin (and treat it even more stringently than cocaine, which, as a Schedule II narcotic is deemed medically beneficial). Yet the fact that Begley’s story made it to the front page of a major out-of-state newspaper is indicative of shifting attitudes toward pot—and ultimately, I think, a growing distaste among most Americans for seeing otherwise law-abiding citizens assaulted (Begley was punched by police) and jailed for what most consider a relatively innocuous weed.

More importantly, Begley’s ordeal is being played out in a state that has been struggling to reform its marijuana laws in the face of months of resistance from its chief executive. Last year the New Jersey legislature voted overwhelmingly to legalize medical marijuana; in January 2010, days before he left office, then-governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat, signed the New Jersey Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act into law.

And yet a year and a half later, the state is only now beginning to implement it. Corzine’s successor, Republican Governor Chris Christie, made it clear from the beginning he didn’t support the law and reiterated as recently as July that he wouldn’t have signed it if he were governor in 2010. So Christie did his best to stall its introduction, meekly holding out for what amounted to overt permission from the federal government to proceed—which I find a bit disingenuous considering the near religious fervor with which the GOP defends the rights of states to legal self-determination.

Governor Christie never did get his permission, but a letter from Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole clarifying the Obama administration’s position made further resistance untenable, and by the end of the year legal weed will be available through one of six certified alternative treatment centers in New Jersey (needless to say, Begley’s is not one of them).

When fully implemented, the state’s medical marijuana law will be among the strictest in the nation, prohibiting even certified users from growing their own weed and forcing doctors to complete addiction classes and counsel patients that pot’s medical benefits are “unfounded.” New Jersey doctors will have a harder time prescribing cannabis than morphine or Oxycontin, both of which are highly addictive and potentially deadly narcotics.

Unfortunately, suffering patients in the Keystone State won’t even get that much. Despite a push by Democratic lawmakers in Harrisburg to give Pennsylvanians access to medical pot, two versions of the Governor Raymond P. Shafer Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (one introduced in April by Sen. Daylin Leach, from Allegheny CountyDelaware and Montgomery counties, and the other in June by Philadelphia’s own Rep. Mark Cohen) appear destined for the great docket in the sky, following their predecessor bills from the last session.

The current legislation is named after former Republican Pennsylvania governor Ray Shafer, who was one of the commonwealth’s earliest official proponents of decriminalizing marijuana altogether. Shafer was definitely not the peace and love type. After distinguishing himself in World War II, he went on to serve two terms as district attorney of Crawford County and then lieutenant governor before being elected to the state’s top office in 1966.

In 1971, freshly out of office, Shafer was handpicked by President Richard Nixon to direct “the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse”—a commission set up to study the effects of marijuana abuse and determine if the drug should remain classified as a Schedule I narcotic, the strictest classification.

The former governor bucked the party line and shocked his administration patrons when he recommended complete decriminalization. In his report, “Marijuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding,” Shafer concluded: “[t]he existing social and legal policy is out of proportion to the individual and social harm engendered by the use of the drug.”

Shafer’s courage to tell what at the time was an unpopular truth makes him a hero to proponents of decriminalization. The Nixon administration was less impressed. The President quashed the study, and Shafer found himself increasingly alienated by a Republican party that was once dominated by centrists like Nelson Rockefeller—for whom he went on to work—but by the late 1970s was trending increasingly rightward.

Both Sen. Leach and Rep. Cohen’s bills (Senate Bill 1003 and House Bill 1653) are currently sitting in committee in their respective chambers in the Pennsylvania General Assembly awaiting consideration, but GOP leaders tasked with reviewing them—Sen. Patricia Vance (a former nurse, of all things) and Rep. Matthew Baker—have said they have no plans to hold hearings.

Yet even if the legislation did miraculously move forward, Governor Corbett has made it clear that if the issue of legalized medical marijuana ever comes to his desk he will use his veto power to kill it, having famously referred to pot on the campaign trail as the “gateway drug.” (What is this, 1985?)

Adding insult to (patient) injury, in refusing to give adequate consideration to medical marijuana legislation, the Republican leadership in Harrisburg is bucking popular sentiment. Pennsylvanians’ support for a medical marijuana law mirrors the national trend: A 2010 Franklin & Marshall poll found that 81 percent of the state’s registered voters (nearly half of them self-described conservatives) supported making cannabis available to patients in need—up from 76 percent in 2006.

For his part Derek Rosenzweig, a spokesperson for the Philly chapter of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), holds out little hope of the bill’s passage. He told High Times: “Medical marijuana will not be a reality in Pennsylvania until elected Republican officials sign on as co-sponsors or otherwise publicly state their support. Pennsylvania’s a huge state. It’s up to the constituents of these elected officials to voice their opinion and not take ‘no’ for an answer.”

I couldn’t agree more. While my own smoking days are long over, I believe the continued prohibition of marijuana—even for recreational use—is one of the most counterintuitive programs currently being enforced by government officials, its expense unjustified by any threat the drug might pose. For an herb that has no toxicity and about as much addictive potential as caffeine to remain illegal despite strong anecdotal evidence of therapeutic value for ailments ranging from glaucoma to multiple sclerosis is simply immoral.