To legalize or not to legalize

Popping the question on 'Pot'

State Sen. Daylin Leach is leading the fight to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania.

But will the reward outweigh the risk if he succeeds and cannabis is legalized in the state?

Senator Leach clearly thinks the rewards from increased state revenues and decreased enforcement costs outweigh the risks. His legalization bill, introduced in April, would tax and regulate marijuana for adult use like alcohol in the state.

“It is time for Pennsylvania to be a leader in jettisoning this modern-day prohibition, and ending a policy that has been destructive, costly and anti-scientific,” said Leach, who has also introduced a bill that would allow people with certain serious illnesses in Pennsylvania to purchase and possess marijuana. This bill is commonly known as the medical marijuana bill.

Currently 20 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use.

While some agree with Sen. Leach and believe this is the time for Pennsylvania to change its marijuana laws, opponents point to health problems and other concerns with legalization.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy strongly opposes legalization of marijuana, contending legalization would have a “negative impact on may aspects of our lives, from public health to national security, transportation, the environment and education attainment,” according to a posting on the ONDCP website.

Many organizations such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Marijuana Policy Project, the American Civil Liberties Union and Pennsylvania’s NAACP have endorsed Sen Leach’s bills to legalize marijuana for adult use and approve marijuana for medical usages.

These organizations support legalization for various reasons. NORML, MPP and the ACLU focus on individual liberties plus the desire to end the prohibition of pot. The Pennsylvania NAACP supports legalization as a method for ending what it believes to be police arrest practices that discriminate against blacks.

Currently in Pennsylvania, marijuana is categorized as a Schedule I drug under the state’s Drug Device and Cosmetic Act and it is considered a dangerous drug with high abuse potential and no accepted medical use.

Possession of marijuana for personal use is graded under state law as a misdemeanor, while possession with intent to deliver or manufacture marijuana is graded as a felony.

Possession of one ounce or less carries a penalty on conviction of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, although most first-time offenders receive probation. (By contrast, the maximum penalties for summary offenses such as underage drinking, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief is 90 days in jail, with maximum fines ranging from $300 to $1,000).

In addition, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will suspend the offender’s driver’s license for six months for a first conviction, one year for a second conviction and two years for a third or subsequent conviction.

Furthermore, a person convicted of any drug possession offense faces a lifetime ban on receiving federally subsidized student financial aid, a penalty not applicable to persons convicted of serious felonies like armed robbery, rape or murder.

One particularly ugly aspect of marijuana law enforcement, both nationally and in Pennsylvania, is the role that the color of the offender’s skin plays when it comes to penalties meted out. According to the national ACLU’s June 2013 “Marijuana in Black and White” report, marijuana use among blacks and whites is roughly equal nationwide, yet blacks are 5.2 times more likely than whites to be arrested in Pennsylvania for pot possession.

In Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia, there are also racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests. Blacks and Latinos are five times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, though usage rates in black, latino and white populations are roughly the same.

Additionally, that ACLU report reports that in 2010, the cost of policing possession laws across Pennsylvania added up to $100.7-million –- a figure Sen Leach would like to see put to better use.

Stop-and-frisk tactics in Philadelphia, which mostly turn up minimal amounts of cannabis, have been focussed in the most economically depressed neighborhoods, sparking soaring arrest rates.

A March 2013 the Pennsylvania ACLU monitoring report on the Philadelphia Police Department’s Stop-and-Frisk program found that nearly 45 percent of stops are made without lawful “reasonable suspicion.” African-Americans and Latinos account for 76 percent of the police stops and 85 percent of the frisks. The report noted that African-Americans made up 43 percent of Philadelphia’s population based on the 2010 Census, but comprised 84.4 percent of marijuana arrests. Whites who made up 41 percent of the population accounted for only 5.8 percent of those arrested in Philadelphia for marijuana possession.

Such disproportionate numbers of the arrests for marijuana possession have left many to wonder if the practice is simply a matter of discriminatory law enforcement.

“It is difficult to say whether minorities are being targeted for malicious reasons, but it also doesn’t matter what the reasons are. The effects are the same. Minorities are arrested for marijuana at much higher rate despite similar use rates and disparate population size,” Marijuana Policy Project Communications Manager Morgan Fox said.

“As long as this continues, young black men in Pennsylvania and nationwide will continue to be disproportionately saddled with criminal records that will haunt them for life, just for using a substance that is safer than alcohol,”

The Philadelphia Police Department denies targeting blacks with pot possession arrests.

Marijuana reform activists believe that legalizing cannabis would all but eliminate this problem. Even if the controversial Stop-and-Frisk tactics continue in Philadlelphia, if marijuana is legalized, if possessing the drug becomes legal, then the arrest of minorities in poor neighborhoods would greatly diminish.

Senator Leach projects that the legalization of cannabis in Pennsylvania could bring in $24 million of new revenue for the state each year. The revenue from taxing marijuana could go towards anything from public transportation to services for senior citizens or to the state’s general fund. Gambling was once illegal in Pennsylvania. Now, he notes, senior citizens currently receive funding from revenues taken in by the State Lottery.

“I think that the ideal place for tax money from a legal, regulated marijuana industry would be in education and health care, particularly oriented around substance abuse,” the MPP’s Fox said.

Ester Lee of the NAACP’s Bethlehem branch offered no opinion as to where her organization would like any revenue from pot legalization to go.

There is another side to this marijuana debate that cannot be ignored. The American Lung Association opposes the legalization and use of marijuana based on its research and studies of the health risks found to be directly associated with the drug.

The ALA’s research debunks contentions that marijuana smoke is not harmful like tobacco smoke. Marijuana smoke, the ALA notes, also contains cancer-causing chemicals. It has 33 of those chemicals and as with tobacco smoke, deposits tar into the lungs. The ALA states that when equal amounts of tobacco and marijuana are smoked, marijuana deposits four times as much tar into one’s lungs.

Like tobacco smoke, marijuana is an irritant to the lungs, which is why frequent cannabis smokers can have the same respiratory problems. Those problems include coughing and phlegm production on most days, wheezing, bronchitis, and risk of a lung infection, according to the ALA. This could be due to that fact that marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do, which further increases the lungs’ exposure to carcinogenic smoke.

The American Cancer Society also opposes legalizing and using marijuana, claiming that the drug causes a number of mental, emotional and physical effects. Some of those effects include short-term memory loss, changes in the perception of time and space, anxiety, confusion, an inability to concentrate, low blood pressure, fast heartbeat, dizziness, slow reaction time, and heart palpitations. The ACS notes that while it is not very common, there are some instances of serious heart problems caused by the use of marijuana. Of course there are ways to mitigate these problems– for example using other methods of ingesting the drug, such as cooler inhalers like water pipes,of ingesting the drug orally, And of course, the health risks of alcohol consumption, which include causing cancer, destroying the liver, and damaging the brain, have never stopped all 50 states and the federal government from keeping its production, sale and consumption legal.

Nonetheless, even for some marijuana law supporters, the health risks pose a significant downside to legalization that has to be addressed. Even though her organization has endorsed Senator Leach’s legalization bill, one member of the NAACP National Board of Directors, Jessica Butler-Grant, does not support legalization, for example, simply stating, “I do not believe in legalizing marijuana!”

However, Sen. Leach and others believe it is only a matter of time before marijuana is legalized nationwide.