At a public hearing on the legalization of medical marijuana, the conversation quickly turned to the legalization of all marijuana. Besides extolling the medical virtues of the drug, the speakers explained what sets marijuana apart from other drugs and the negative impact its criminalization is having on the country.

PUBLIC HEARING—From left: Jake Wheatley, John Myers and Karen Shaffer, executive director of the House Health and Human Services Committee.

“This was just the continuation of our committee going out to hear testimony. I anticipate there will be more hearings across the commonwealth and figuring out if we will move forward with the bill or not,” said state Rep. Jake Wheatley, 19th Legislative District. “I think there’s enough interest in the subject matter that if we don’t get it passed this session we’ll continue to work on it next session.”

The House Health and Human Services Committee is currently considering a bill (H.B. 1393) that would allow medical marijuana use in Pennsylvania. The public hearing held at the University of Pittsburgh on Aug. 19 featured a number of speakers on both sides of the debate.

“It helps these people alleviate the emotional and painful suffering. I haven’t seen homicides or accidents related to marijuana, but I wish I had a hair on my head for every homicide or accident related to alcohol,” said Cyril Wecht, former Allegheny County coroner.

“It doesn’t lead to the same physical addiction as these other drugs. Is there any kind of psychological dependence? Maybe.”

Though many of its applications are still experimental, medical marijuana has been used to treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, lung cancer, breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. Fourteen states have legalized medical marijuana.

“It should come as no surprise that it’s medical uses are growing exponentially. It’s already been proven that it might shrink some cancer cells,” said Lester Grinspoon, associate professor emeritus of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School. “I was convinced that it was a very bad thing. Much to my surprise, I found no scientific verification for the prohibition of this drug. There has never been a death from marijuana anywhere.”

Eliciting the most applause from the audience was former narcotics detective Jack Cole, who was there in favor of marijuana legalization across the board. Now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition he recounted his own involvement in the War on Drugs, first termed by President Richard Nixon in 1971, but actually started during the Teddy Roosevelt administration in 1914.

“Today drugs are cheaper, stronger and way easier for our kids to get than when the war began. Nothing can be regulated or controlled when it’s illegal,” Cole said. “Most of the people I arrested were young adults, many of which were self-medicating with marijuana. You can get over an addiction. You’ll never get over a conviction. The only place those people can find acceptance is right back in the drug world. The financial ramifications of drug prohibition are staggering. It will also help police to return to more important jobs like tracking down violent criminals.”

According to Cole, legalization could lead to $88 million annually in revenue for the state, while the state is currently spending $408 million in control efforts. He also said marijuana use in Portugal, which legalized medical marijuana and the Netherlands where it has been decriminalized, has seen a major decrease.

Others including Rep. John Myers who serves on the committee, expressed strong hesitation to legalization because of their personal experience losing loved ones to a drug related incident.

“Social issues are always very controversial. Do I wan to see drugs stopped? Absolutely, by any means necessary. That might not necessarily be your opinion but I’m not going to shove it down your throat,” Meyers said. “If there was a stronger war on drugs my son might be alive today. If drugs were legal my son might be alive today. I don’t know because we all know where there’s profit to be made, there’s corruption.”

Under the bill, the state Department of Health would regulate and tax medical marijuana. The drug would be distributed at Compassion Centers, but patients could also grow their own marijuana, not to exceed six plants at a time.

“I am not here to present myself as a medical expert. I am here as a father. I’m representing tens of thousands of families who will not get the chance to speak today. I challenge any intelligent person to argue that this will not add to an increase of use in our state,” said Ron Owen, who lost his daughter to drug addiction. “There are many other approved drugs to assist cancer patients. I urge you not to legislate medical marijuana for Pennsylvania. We have a device to protect every citizen from medicine. It works. Why not use it.”

Many of the bills opponents argued it was wrong to bypass the Food and Drug Administration’s system, as the organization has already deemed the drug unsafe. They say it’s not safe to smoke anything.

“I do believe people are trying to receive help for medical conditions. Yet I am against this legislation. I think there are better ways to care for them,” said Neil Capretto, Gateway Rehabilitation Center. “Most people in this country don’t use marijuana for medical purposes. They use it to get high.”

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