*Special Report* Legalizing Marijuana
by Karen Sarkissian
Genesis 1:12: “The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.”
Yo, dudes! Did God actually say marijuana was good? Believe it or not, that’s how some people interpret this passage. And that’s how it goes with issues regarding marijuana: it depends on the issue and who’s doing the interpreting. And, where marijuana is concerned, there are lots of issues and lots of interpreting.
Marijuana and Pennsylvania
On April 17, 2016, Governor Tom Wolf (D) signed Senate Bill 3, legalizing medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. Patients with serious medical conditions will soon be able to access medical marijuana with a physician's certification. Pennsylvania is now the 24th stat to enact such a law. The medical conditions that currently qualify for medical marijuana are: - Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis - Autism - Cancer - Crohn’s Disease - Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity - Epilepsy - Glaucoma - HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) / AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) - Huntington’s Disease - Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome - Intractable Seizures - Multiple Sclerosis - Neuropathies - Parkinson’s Disease - Post-traumatic Stress Disorder - Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain in which conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or ineffective - Sickle Cell Anemia
Yes, you did see Autism. Pennsylvania is the first state to list Autism as a qualifying condition for marijuana. A University of California, Irvine study found that marijuana could be an effective treatment for autism. Essentially, researchers believe that some forms of Autism Spectrum Disorder develop in males during the first three years of life due to an endocannabinoid deficiency. A 2013 study by the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that proper doses of marijuana, as opposed to pharmaceuticals, alleviated autism symptoms such as anxiety, aggression, panic disorder, and self-injurious behaviors.
Medical marijuana can be ingested in various ways: imbibed as a liquid; eaten in the form of cookies, candies, or power bars; inhaled as a vapor; and applied topically as an oil.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health has six months to draft temporary regulations. The implementation of the medical marijuana program is expected to take between 18 and 24 months and will offer medical marijuana to patients with a physician’s certification at designated state dispensaries.
Notice that the medical marijuana will be distributed at dispensaries and not pharmacies. That is because the U.S. Federal Drug Association (FDA) has still not approved marijuana as a safe and effective drug.
Pennsylvania and Legislation Regarding Marijuana State Senator Daylin Leach (17th District, Montgomery County, D) began marijuana legislation. If you go onto his website and check under “Issues & Resources,” you’ll find a selection for marijuana, under which he reveals his vision regarding legalization and regulation. “Marijuana would be a regulated product,” writes Leach, “treated similarly to alcohol.” He further claims that legalizing marijuana would raise at least $24 million per year in tax revenue, provide a multi-million dollar recurring revenue source, and save taxpayers arrest costs. Obviously, at some point, medical marijuana became the sole focus of the bill. I found this confusing so I contacted Senator Leach’s office and his press advisor informed me that there are two legislations: one concerning medical marijuana and one concerning the legalization of marijuana.
Medical Marijuana On November 18, 2013, Senator Leach held a press conference with Senator Mike Folmer (Dauphin, Lebanon, and York Counties, R) to introduce the “Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act,” which would legalize the use of medical cannabis for patients prescribed the drug by attending physicians. It marked the first time in Senate history that a marijuana bill was drafted with bipartisan support. Senator Folmer, on his website, indicated that he had heard from many Pennsylvanians, particularly parents of children with extreme seizure disorders, who had benefited from medical marijuana. The Pennsylvania State Nurses Association also supported the legislation. As a cancer survivor, Folmer felt that patients should have every opportunity to use marijuana as “as a weapon in their arsenal of treatment.” If the state continued to prohibit its use, the most vulnerable citizens would be denied an improved quality of health and life. Senators Leach and Folmer introduced their bill to the Pennsylvania Senate on January 14, 2014. On Leach’s website, under “Issues & Resources,” there is a page entitled “Compassionate Access to Medical Cannabis: Real Medicine for Real People.” There you will find stories of people who suffer from uncontrollable seizures and severe forms of epilepsy that have not responded to conventional therapies, and who feel that medical marijuana will finally give them the relief they deserve. I’ve seen these individuals before. They are from “Campaign for Compassion,” a Pennsylvania-based community resource dedicated to educating the public about the positive effects of marijuana and working towards comprehensive medical marijuana legislation in the state of Pennsylvania. There are testimonials on the group’s site from people with spinal injuries, glaucoma, bipolar disorder, dementia, and anxiety—all of whom are convinced medical marijuana will relieve their suffering.
Legalization of Marijuana On January 13, 2013, Senator Leach wrote an opinion editorial on his website in which he referenced how marijuana had been legalized in Washington and Colorado, and that he would be introducing a bill legalizing the consumption of marijuana for adults over the age of 21, without regard to the purpose of that consumption. He said that the “war on drugs” spent billions of dollars prosecuting and incarcerating citizens for the “crime” of smoking a plant that makes them giddy. He then held a press conference in Harrisburg in February 2013 where he announced introduction of his bill to legalize marijuana and said that, “The modern prohibition of marijuana does a disservice to Pennsylvania by tying up our resources in the prosecution of its users by depriving us of the revenue that this marijuana could generate.” Senator Leach’s office advised me that the bill to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania was introduced to the senate in February 2015. Thus far, there have been no further actions on the bill. An October 2015 Quinnipiac poll revealed that 49% of Pennsylvania voters were against legalization, while 47% supported it.
Marijuana in Philadelphia On October 14, 2014, former Mayor Michael Nutter signed an ordinance decriminalizing marijuana. Those possessing marijuana in small amounts will no longer be arrested, but rather fined or made to perform community service. So, medical marijuana is now legal in the state of Pennsylvania, and State Senator Leach is currently attempting to make it legal. Plus, possession in Philadelphia has now been decriminalized. Is that it? Is that all we need to know? The answer, for me at least, is a resounding “no.” As someone who has smoked a couple of joints in her lifetime, and is now a mother to a teenager who has access to marijuana, I wanted to know more about this drug.
What Exactly is Marijuana? Marijuana is a green, brown, or gray mixture of dried, shredded leaves, stems, seeds, and flowers of the hemp plant Cannabis Sativa. Its main active chemical is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). THC acts on specific receptors in the brain, called cannabinoid receptors, and initiates a chain of cellular reactions that leads to the "high" users experience. Certain areas in the brain have higher areas of cannabinoid receptors and are, therefore, more affected. It is known by other names, including grass, herb, Mary Jane, pot, hash, reefer, and weed. Hemp is any form of the Cannabis plant with less than 3/10 of 1% THC. Marijuana is the third most-popular recreational drug behind tobacco (nicotine) and alcohol, and it is the most commonly used illegal drug in the world. Recreational drugs are chemical substances taken for enjoyment, or leisure purposes, rather than for medical reasons. Other recreational drugs include caffeine, mushrooms, solvents (glues, aerosols, petrol, etc.), ecstasy, and LSD. More than 1 in 3 people in the United States has tried marijuana at some point in their lives. In 2010, more than 45% of all high school seniors used marijuana over the course of their lifetime. In 2014, 1 in every 17 college students smoked marijuana on a daily basis. Also in 2014, marijuana use rose from 4.1 percent to 9.5 percent of the adult population.
Marijuana in the United States
Marijuana’s intoxicating potential and possible medical uses were referenced as far back as 2737 B.C. in China. Because the Koran banned alcohol, Muslims used it recreationally and then introduced it to what is now Iran and North Africa. In the 16th Century, Spain brought it to the New World (the western hemisphere, Caribbean, and Bermuda), and in the 17th Century the English introduced it to Jamestown, where it was grown as a source of fiber. In the 19th Century, hemp replaced cotton as a major cash crop in the southern states and some medicines actually contained marijuana (along with opium and cocaine). In the 1920s, probably due to Prohibition, jazz musicians and others in show business began using marijuana as a recreational drug. “Reefer songs” became popular and marijuana clubs, or “tea pads,” surfaced in major cities. Communities tolerated the clubs as patrons were not disruptive and marijuana was not seen as a threat. From 1850 to the early 20th century, the U.S. used marijuana to treat various conditions, including labor pains, nausea, and rheumatism, and it was commonly used as an intoxicant.
Federal Marijuana Laws In the 1930s, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs), sought to portray marijuana as a powerful, addicting substance that would lure users into narcotics addiction (a “gateway” drug). In the 1950s, marijuana was associated with the “beat generation,” a group of authors led by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose literature influenced American culture in the post-World War II era. And, in the 1960s, it was used by college students and “hippies” and symbolized rebellion against authority. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” He increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and pressed for mandatory sentences. He appointed a commission to review certain drugs, which unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use, but he ignored the findings and kept marijuana in the most restrictive category. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter campaigned on a platform that included marijuana decriminalization, and in October 1977 the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce for personal use. A few years later, however, parents became increasingly concerned over high rates of teen use and decriminalization plans were abandoned. In 1972, NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, lobbied to reschedule cannabis under federal law. Federal authorities twice refused to accept the petition and twice NORML was successful upon appeal. In 1988, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Chief Administrative Law Judge, Francis Young, declared that marijuana was one of the safest, therapeutically active substances known to man, could be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care, and that it would be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand in the way of sufferers who could benefit from it. He further concluded that “the marijuana plant considered as a whole has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, that there is no lack of accepted safety for use of it under medical supervision, and that it may lawfully be transferred from Schedule I (no currently accepted medical use in treatment) to Schedule II (drugs that have accepted medical use).” No one took any action on Judge Young’s recommendations. In the 1980s, The Reagan and Bush administration’s “zero tolerance” directives resulted in even stricter laws and more sentences. And, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a "three strikes" rule, which meant that anyone convicted of a serious violent crime that had two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes, was given a life sentence. The number of those incarcerated for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. A month before leaving office, in a Rolling Stone interview, Clinton declared that a re-examination of the policy on imprisonment of drug users was needed and that marijuana use "should be decriminalized.” President George W. Bush was against the legalization of marijuana, including for medicinal purposes, but supported a state’s right to decide legality for its citizens. In 2014, President Barak Obama viewed smoking marijuana as a bad habit and a vice, but no different from cigarettes and no more dangerous than alcohol. In December 2015, President Obama signed the Rohrbacher-Farr Amendment, which prohibited the Department of Justice (DOJ) from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. The DOJ read the law as only preventing actions against states, not individuals or businesses, and continued to pursue criminal and civil actions against medical marijuana businesses and the patients who patronized them. The district court stated that the DOJ’s actions tortured the meaning of the law and defied language and logic. The DOJ initially appealed, but then dismissed its own case. Canna Law Blog, which provides legal support for the marijuana business community, considered the decision and the DOJ’s action’s a “big win.” In February 2015, Jared Polis, Representative for Colorado's 2nd Congressional District (D), introduced a bill that would decriminalize marijuana at the Federal level and leave it to the states to regulate it in the same manner they regulated alcohol. A current review of the status of the bill indicates that it had a 1% chance of being enacted. In 2016, President Obama indicated that marijuana reform was not on his list of end-of-term priorities, and that it will be reclassified only if Congress decides to do so.
The FDA As mentioned earlier, pharmacies distribute medications approved by the FDA. Before the FDA can approve a drug as safe and effective, an IND Application must be submitted so that it can review and study it. The FDA website states that the organization “has talked to several states, including Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New York and Pennsylvania, who are considering support for medical research of marijuana to ensure that their plans meet federal requirements and scientific standards.” The FDA has approved Marinol, which contains a synthetic version of THC, and is currently used to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy, and loss of appetite and weight loss in patients with HIV infection.
Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado In November 2012, Colorado voters approved a state constitutional amendment legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. The state then began allowing the sale of recreational marijuana to residents aged 21 and older at retail locations on January 1, 2014. Legalization was expected to save taxpayers $10 billion, plus the state also implemented a sales tax of 2.9%, while some communities added additional taxes. Those using medical marijuana still require physician’s recommendations, are exempt from paying taxes, and continue to purchase marijuana from dispensaries. Residents are allowed to grow up to six plants in their homes, as long as the patch is enclosed and locked. Recreational marijuana can only be smoked on private property, with the owner’s permission, and is prohibited in establishments governed by the state's Clean Indoor Air Act. Communities and counties can forbid smoking in their jurisdictions (Colorado Springs and Greeley have done so). Those under 21 cannot possess or use marijuana. Denver, however, decriminalized possession for people ages 18-21. Police can ticket a motorist caught driving with a THC blood level of five nanograms or more with impaired driving. In January 2016, two years after legalizing marijuana, people can be seen puffing marijuana in bars, on sidewalks, and while stuck in traffic. There was a recent racketeering lawsuit involving a marijuana shop and a threat to forbid all marijuana advertising from going through the mail. Police are still struggling to enforce the laws, including drugged driving, and officials are worried about the marijuana industry becoming like big tobacco, dodging regulation and luring users with slick advertising. Police struggle to enforce driving laws, as there is no quick, reliable way to gauge whether drivers are too high to safely operate a vehicle. Access to banking services remains restricted because marijuana is still illegal under federal law. People, especially out-of-towners, are unaware of how much product is in edibles, such as candy bars, and sometimes get violently ill. The state has made about $30 million less in estimated taxes, and illegal use among youth is the highest in the nation. Nonetheless, numerous retail stores, agriculture facilities, and manufacturers have been established and thousands of new jobs have brought $135 million into the state. And 53% percent of voters believe legalizing marijuana has been good for the state. Two states, Oklahoma and Nebraska, have filed suit to overturn Colorado’s legalized marijuana law, contending that it violated the U.S. Constitution. The suit claims that marijuana crossed state lines, causing problems for states where it remains illegal under both state and federal law. Colorado believes that it was not responsible to enforce prohibition outside its state, which is the purview of the federal government. Because the matter involved two states, Oklahoma and Nebraska filed the matter directly with the U.S. Supreme Court. In March 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the matter. Earlier this month, Oklahoma’s Attorney general continued his efforts in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A decision is expected later this month.
Is Marijuana Safe and Effective? As I said earlier, it really depends on the issue and who is doing the interpreting. Different sites say different things and every expert has an opinion. For example, Web MD says that occasional use of marijuana isn’t usually harmful, but that some people have had heart attacks right after use. It can also increase bleeding, lower blood pressure, and affect blood sugar. It is not known whether it is linked to lung cancer, but it does irritate the lungs and regular users are more likely to have ongoing coughs and lung-related problems, such as colds and infections. As well, it causes more problems if a smoker has a pre-existing liver disease, low blood pressure, low sperm count, or low libido. It is addictive in 10% who use it, and may or may not be a gateway drug. Research shows a link between marijuana use and depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, short-term psychosis, and schizophrenia, but it remains unclear whether marijuana is the cause of these conditions or just makes them worse. Medline goes on to say that marijuana can cause problems with memory, learning, and behavior, and that smokers can get addicted after using it for a while. Over time, marijuana users can get "burnt out" and don’t think about much or do much; they can't concentrate and don’t seem to care about anything. A study shows that if use begins as a teen, an average loss of eight IQ points occurs and can never be regained. Studies also found an association between marijuana use and alcohol dependence: pot users with alcohol problems are less likely to quit drinking, and five times more likely to develop alcohol problems. The Foundation for a Drug Free World states that marijuana has 50-70% more cancer-causing substances than tobacco, and that a single “joint” can cause as much damage as up to five cigarettes smoked one after another. Studies in Australia have also linked years of heavy use to brain abnormalities. NORML, on the other hand, declares that marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. While 50,000 die from alcohol poisoning and 400,000 from tobacco each year, marijuana is non-toxic and cannot cause death by overdose.
Is it an effective drug? In June 2015, the Journal of American Medical Association published a study entitled “Cannabinoids for Medical Use,” concluding that there is moderate-quality evidence to support treatment of chronic pain and spasticity; low-quality evidence suggesting improvements in nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, weight gain in HIV, sleep disorders, and Tourette syndrome: and no evidence that it was effective in treating depression, anxiety, or glaucoma.
NORML, however, lists numerous studies proving marijuana’s effectiveness in treating nerve pain associated with cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, spinal cord injury, and many other debilitating conditions; spasticity and pain in patients with Multiple Sclerosis; ability to moderate autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease; and its role in treating neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, and severe epilepsy and seizure disorders. In addition, a University of California, Irvine study found that marijuana was an effective treatment for schizophrenia and Parkinson’s Disease.
And then there are the heartbreaking stories told by the members of “Campaign for Compassion.” Imagine having a child with hundreds of seizures a day and not being able to help them. Imagine living in constant pain for years without any relief. Imagine disabling neurological conditions and depression. History and science have revealed that marijuana can be used as a helpful medicine, but political leaders kept it classified as a drug with no accepted medical use.
Yes, there are many opinions. As with all things, if you think marijuana might help you, or if you’re wondering whether it should be legalized as a recreational drug, do your homework, study the issues, discuss it with your family and friends. Make a well-informed decision that feels right to you. As for me, I can’t deny those families the medical treatment they seek. I can’t argue the power of the testimonials or the rigor in the studies. I am glad it was legalized as a medical treatment, as I want to give those who are sick every chance at recovery.
I am also glad Philadelphia decriminalized possession. A 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that, although white and African-Americans use marijuana at nearly identical rates, African-Americans were 5.2% more likely to be arrested for possession. Plus, I can’t see putting marijuana users in prison alongside hardened criminals or subjecting them to severe penalties. It simply doesn’t make sense.
As far as legalizing marijuana as a recreational drug, I don’t know where I stand. I’ve encountered more than enough drug and alcohol abuse in my life, and I’ve seen its destructiveness. And that includes marijuana abuse. I fear that people will use it rather than deal with certain issues in their lives, and abandon their intellectual, creative, and social pursuits. But that is my opinion.
There is one particular issue that may concern parents: marijuana’s effect on the teenage brain. Krista Lisdahl, director of the brain imaging and neuropsychology lab at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, states that regular use of marijuana (once a week or more) can alter the structure of the teenage brain, specifically in areas dealing with memory and problem-solving. Alan Budney, a professor at Dartmouth College, claims that the likely consequences of teenage consumption are addiction, car accidents, chronic bronchitis, and decreased life achievement.
The only way to have a fair investigation is for it to be conducted by someone with no influence. Nevertheless, it seems like fairness and public relations don’t always go hand-in-hand. When the report was released on March 16, the only thing that ran through my mind was “what took so long?” And, “why couldn’t they wait another day?”