Philly420: Pa. House committees entertain medical marijuana fiction

mattbaker
Pa. Rep. Matt Baker (R-Tioga)

The Pennsylvania House Health and Judiciary Committees held their second hearing this week on medical marijuana that featured testimony from the law enforcement perspective. It was a grueling five hours filled with many half truths and disinformation. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect was that no one in the room would flatly oppose the issue even as they railed against it. Perhaps they are (rightly) afraid of going against 88 percent of Pa. voters who, in a recent Quinnipiac poll, say they want legal medical marijuana. 

Instead, the lawyers, law enforcement, substance-treatment lobbyists, and politicians danced around their own negative sentiments. They offered vague possibilities of unintended consequences. They hid behind federal law. They begged for strict regulations. In the end, several of those speaking resorted to the same prohibitionist rhetoric we've all heard for the last century. 

Still, there were some standout moments in which some elected officials, especially Rep. Jim Cox (R., Berks) and Rep. Mike Regan (R., York), showed that they truly understand the issue. 

Some of the strangest testimony came from Risa Vetri Ferman, the Montgomery County district attorney and vice president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. Ferman is also running for local judge. Her submitted written testimony started off by saying, "We have incredible sympathy for those who are in pain and are legitimately seeking relief." 

Ferman then warned legislators about black market diversion and offered an odd statement for a medical access hearing that "marijuana is harmful."

In her oral testimony, Ferman went on for almost an hour claiming that there was an increase in crime in other states as a direct result of medical marijuana. There is absolutely no evidence to support that statement, even though it is often used as an opposition argument to scare lawmakers. The truth is quite the opposite. The Washington Post reported on a 2014 study looking at this very issue.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas looked at the FBI's Uniform Crime Report data across the country between 1990 and 2006, a span during which 11 states legalized medical marijuana. Throughout this time period, crime was broadly falling throughout the United States. But a closer look at the differences between these states – and within the states that legalized the drug before and after the law's passage – further shows no noticeable local uptick among a whole suite of crimes: homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft.

There have been several other journalists and researchers who have since looked at the claim. Ferman's assertion is simply false. 

Her colleague, Bucks County DA David Heckler, claimed that legal medical marijuana increased traffic fatalities. This is another completely unsubstantiated assertion. Yet it was repeated several times by Heckler as fact. 

The Daily Beast covered the recycled and flawed data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to which Heckler and others referred to during the hearing: 

But NIDA's claim that marijuana use increases the likelihood of an accident is contradicted in some of the government’s own research. One, a U.S. Department of Transportation study from 2000, measured the effects of a low dose of THC with and without alcohol on driving proficiency of recreational users of marijuana and alcohol. The results showed that while THC and alcohol combined impaired driving, THC had only a negligible effect on driving. “Low doses of marijuana (THC 100 μg/kg) taken alone, did not impair city driving performance and did not diminish visual search frequency for traffic at intersections in this study,” the study reads.

Both Heckler and Ferman said there are only "anecdotal" reports on the benefits for medical marijuana. 

Rep. Mike Regan, a law enforcement veteran, has come out as an unlikely and passionate supporter of medical cannabis. Regan said he has seen hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies showing a real value of marijuana for patients. Regan didn't mince words. He said that calling the supporting science only anecdotal was "crap."

Regan pointed out the testimony before the same committees two weeks earlier by Dr. David Casarett, a physician and researcher in Philadelphia. Regan has posted a video of Casarett's testimony on his homepage. 

Rep. Matt Baker (R., Tioga) the chairman of the House Health Committee, is a staunch opponent of marijuana reform. Baker keeps a three-ring binder full of 150 anti-marijuana studies and articles next to him at all times (no kidding). Baker cited several studies that have been debunked

Baker also constantly blurred the line between medical and recreational marijuana. In a telling moment, Rep. Ron Marsico, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked Baker to stop voicing his opposition. Baker ignored him and plowed forward, binder held aloft.

Baker also read, at length, from a series that recently appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette that was critical of that state's recreational marijuana system. Baker called it "investigative journalism," but the series was actually an extended opinion piece. 

The CS Gazette has received scathing response to the piece even from current and former employees of the paper. Several of the articles in the Gazette series did not include a byline. In fact, the editorial was penned by Christine Tatum. She and her husband, Dr. Alan Thurstone, are the most vocal opposition to legal marijuana - in any form - in Colorado. But the fake-news piece of cherry-picked facts was proffered as hard journalism into the official record by Baker because it perfectly fits his own view. 

Baker also claimed that cocaine is a federal Schedule I controlled substance. Not true. The federal government lists cocaine as a Schedule II, currently viewing it as less dangerous and more medically beneficial than cannabis. 

James Walsh was up next, representing the Pa. Fraternal Order of Police, saying that cops want to be compassionate. Walsh even suggested that police officers already are going easy on some marijuana offenders who have medical needs. Walsh presented no evidence to back up this claim. 

There are almost 18,000 marijuana possession arrests in Pennsylvania each year. There are 5,000 more arrests for things like cultivation, i.e. patients who seek to grown their own instead of paying underground prices. This writer has spoken to dozens of Pa. residents who have cancer, HIV, PTSD and other conditions who have been arrested and prosecuted. They have not been allowed to bring up their medical conditions at trial. I have also spoken to some underground patients who, after being arrested, have had their charges dropped. So it is a mixed bag. There is, by no means, any broad police policy getting patients off the hook. 

Walsh then said that Pa. police he surveyed were largely against the measure. 

Rep. Regan, a former U.S. marshal, countered Walsh's assertion.

"Guys who spent careers in law enforcement, including myself, without exception, they are for medical marijuana," Regan said after speaking with friends, constituents and colleagues. 

Regan went on to ask Walsh if he had ever encountered a violent marijuana consumer or had to respond to a call about a marijuana overdose. Walsh answered “no” to both. 

The Pa. FOP's Walsh also said he was recently in Washington, D.C., lobbying Congress. Walsh stated that there is no active effort to "move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II" in the federal Controlled Substances Act. 

Perhaps it was sheer ignorance on the part of Walsh, because there are bills in both the U.S. House and Senate to do just that. Walsh must have missed the extensive, national news about the Senate bill offered in March by Senators Rand Paul (R., Kentucky), Cory Booker (D., New Jersey) and Kristen Gillibrand (D., New York) called the CARERS Act. A key aspect of that legislation is rescheduling. 

Next up was William Kelley, the Abington police chief representing the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. Kelley said that if the General Assembly decides to enact a medical marijuana law the Police Chiefs will support it. 

"It is no longer if, it is how," said Kelley.

But then Kelley went into a detailed account of what he saw as the failures of Oregon's medical marijuana system. In an odd turn, Kelley then stated that Oregon has "not approved recreational marijuana."

In fact, Oregon voters approved a ballot measure last year to fully legalize cannabis for adults joining Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Washington, D.C. in ending local prohibition. Kelley must have missed that news. 

Many of those testifying, as well as Baker, said they would rather the Pa. General Assembly pass a resolution asking Congress to change statutes than enact a local safe access law.

Rep. Jim Cox, a strong advocate for medical marijuana, questioned that approach calling it a "Catch-22" for local patients. Cox grilled many of those testifying, often causing them to stumble. Cox said that he has come to see heavy restrictions and short lists of qualifying conditions to be a bad idea.

The overall consensus was this: The FOP, Chiefs of Police and District Attorneys Associations, and even the substance-treatment lobby refused to take a stance for or against any medical marijuana legislation. They all asked for the strictest controls on cannabis to prevent "diversion," a very limited list of approved medical conditions, no smoking, and law enforcement involvement in the regulatory phase.

Hearing Pennsylvania's law enforcement community be so fearful of diversion into the underground market was strange. Criminal prohibition has been a total failure here and in every state. 

In a previous Philly420 column, I extrapolated on data published by the RAND Corp. and found that there could be an estimated 825,000 Pennsylvanians already consuming cannabis in the Keystone State. The current, underground market in the state could be worth more than $2 billion every year. Creating a legal medical marijuana program will have no impact on that market whatsoever. Even if there was any diversion it would be a drop in the ocean of weed already flowing. 

The disturbing part of the testimony was listening to the fictions spun by many of the elected and appointed officials. In their zeal to prevent a broad, safe cannabis access program in Pennsylvania, they have exposed serious questions about their command of the facts. 

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at chris@freedomisgreen.com.