Its high time for cannabis reform in PA

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President Barack Obama is speaking out on the legalization debate, saying marijuana isn’t more dangerous than alcohol or different from cigarettes.

“I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” the President told The New Yorker’s David Remnick in a recent interview.

“As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life,” Obama said.

A ‘bad habit’ can hardly be considered criminal activity. The totally unrealistic legal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance by the Federal government, on par with heroin and crystal meth, forces people to break the law in a crime with no victims, just to smoke a joint.

An issue that does concern the President is the incarceration rates of minorities and low income families from marijuana arrests, and as a former Allegheny County prosecutor, I am all too familiar with the unjust nature of current laws.

“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” President Obama said.

The numbers would suggest the President is right.

There are currently 800,000 annual pot arrests/prosecutions in the United States, 80% of which are for possession only. The disparity of 4-1 Black kids versus White kids being charged and incarcerated, is a strong indicator this can be considered a racially motivated law enforcement program, rather than one of protecting the public.

For a low income person, an arrest for marijuana possession– and the criminal record that comes with it– can have devastating life long consequences. The costs of defending oneself, paying fines, the potential loss of a job, and even their children, place an unduly harsh penalty on low income people.

Indeed, the old saying that, “the only real harm that results from marijuana use is getting caught with it”, has real, fact-based science behind it.  Try getting a job at McDonalds, Wal-Mart or Sheetz with a marijuana conviction.

Politicians are increasingly having a difficult time reconciling their own public stands against marijuana use with their personal, private behavior. They all seem to want a “Pass” that low income kids will never get. They seem to think that not getting caught makes it okay to admit they broke the laws that they are now charged with enforcing. Consider the following admissions:

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.): “The first time I didn’t like the taste and the second time it scared me. … A number of my friends used it, but it just wasn’t something I could get into.” (Oct. 1992)

Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.): “Smoked pot once but not often” in his thirties. (1987)

Former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.): “That was a sign we were alive and in graduate school in that era.” (1995)

Former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.): “I have used marijuana several times in my life, but never cocaine.” (Sept. 1999)

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.): “Yes,” when asked if he would admit to having used marijuana in the past. (Nov. 2003)

Former Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.): Chiles’ then-spokesman: “He did try it once in private over 17 years ago and never did again.” (Nov. 1987)

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.): “Yes,” when asked if he would admit to having used marijuana in the past. (Nov. 2003)

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.): “Well, yeah, I admitted you know, back when I was running for the Senate, that when I was in college that I smoked pot and that was something that I did when I was in college … It was something that I’m not proud of, but I did. And said it was something that I wish I hadn’t done. But I did and I admitted it. I would encourage people not to do so. It was not all it’s made up to be.” (Aug. 2011)

Mr. Santorum, is right. It’s “not all it’s made up to be.” Clearly it’s not a very dangerous drug and doesn’t turn one into a lazy pothead who can’t achieve success in life, like, say, becoming a U.S. Senator, or even President.

It seems amazing that the above comments go back to the 1980′s, and we are still having this debate today. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal marijuana and Colorado has made possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana legal, with a windfall of profits and tax revenue as a result. Not to mention saving a fortune on police and court time.

Much of the legal status of Marijuana today goes back to the 1972 Shafer Commission Report. Much of the earliest anti-weed rhetoric was a result of segregation and a backlash against the black Jazz musicians in the early part of the 20th century. Hardly a period of enlightened thinking, which also saw another prohibition experiment fail miserably. In fact, alcohol prohibition created entirely new opportunities for criminals to build fortunes and did nothing to stop people from drinking.

Today, we see mainstream media sources like CNN offering sound, realistic reporting on the senseless and often biased enforcement of marijuana laws. Today we have a President who is publicly admitting that not only is Marijuana not a dangerous drug, but that he used it regularly. Today, in Pennsylvania, there are currently two bills before the state house dealing with the issue of marijuana law, SB 1182 (medicinal use) and SB 528 (full legalization). Gubernatorial candidates like John Hanger are making marijuana reform a central part of their campaigns, even providing plans for implementing a program with tax revenues going to education and drug treatment programs.

It’s high time for Pennsylvania to move into the 21st century on this vital issue, and leave the prejudice, misinformation, racial bias and outright lies in the past, where they belong.

Patrick K. Nightingale, Esquire is Executive Director, Pittsburgh NORML.

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