Seeing through the smoke
First Posted: 1/13/2014
By Rich Howells, Weekender Editor, and Sara Pokorny, Weekender Staff Writer
The entire country has been watching closely since marijuana was legalized for recreational use in Colorado on Jan. 1. While similar legal reform still seems foreign to Pennsylvania, it actually might not be as far away as local residents might think.
A bi-partisan bill announced last year was introduced on Monday by Senators Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) and Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) that would legalize the use of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, the first step in decriminalizing cannabis in the state.
Past bills introduced by Leach regarding medical marijuana failed to advance, but this time, it may have a chance due to changing attitudes across the U.S.
Just last week, a CNN/ORC International poll showed that 55 percent of those surveyed believe marijuana should be legal; 44 percent disagreed. This supports the findings of an Oct. 2013 Gallup poll that determined that 58 percent of Americans feel the drug should be legalized, “in sharp contrast to the time Gallup first asked the question in 1969, when only 12 percent favored legalization.”
In the CNN poll, support was 67 percent to 32 percent among those aged 18 to 34, and it was 64 percent to 34 percent for those 35 to 49 years old. The law, however, has yet to catch up to this shift.
According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, law enforcement carried out 749,825 arrests for marijuana violations in 2012. About 48 percent of all drug arrests nationwide are for marijuana. Of all the arrests for marijuana violations last year, about 88 percent were for possession only, while the rest were charged for the sale and/or manufacture, which includes almost all cultivation offenses.
Joe Jerrytone, of Jerrytone Law in Kingston, looks at the laws as “archaic” and, when it comes to marijuana, quite frankly something that doesn’t make much sense.
“The biggest kicker for me is that in Pennsylvania, having drug paraphernalia carries a potentially heavier sentence than actual possession of the drug,” Jerrytone said. “If you’re found with paraphernalia, it’s a misdemeanor and the possible maximum sentence is a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail. On the flip side, possession of 30 grams or less is only $500 and 30 days in jail, if convicted. It makes no sense whatsoever.”
Outside of the fines and jail time, there are other ways in which those convicted can be affected, some of which leave Jerrytone scratching his head.
“There are also difficulties that pop up with student loans,” he noted. “I believe with a federally subsidized student loan and financial aid, a possession offense can make you ineligible. However, let’s say you have someone that committed an aggravated assault – that’s not specifically listed as something that would make you ineligible. I just don’t understand why there’s concern with a petty marijuana offense but not when someone actually caused physical harm to someone else.”
Jerrytone doesn’t see Pennsylvania getting to the point of Colorado or Washington any time soon.
“We’re not even in the realm of having marijuana for medicinal use yet, despite the benefits such use has shown,” he said. “Times have changed; we see that countrywide. As you can see with the way we treat alcohol, we still don’t have it in every grocery store, like many other states do. I would think the legalization of marijuana for recreational use would take the same route.
“There are political candidates in Pennsylvania that are on board, and I think it falls back on the Pennsylvania voters. If they were more aware of studies in how medical marijuana can benefit people, I think they’d be more willing to be a proponent of it. A lot of people think there are going to be a bunch of Cheech and Chongs running around, but that’s not it.”
One of those candidates is former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger, who is running for governor this year. He has made marijuana legalization one of his campaign platforms, “proposing a three-step reform of our marijuana laws to allow medical use of marijuana, reduce prison overcrowding, ameliorate racial discrimination in marijuana arrests, and save money,” according to his campaign website.
“I am calling for immediately allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, reducing the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana to a summary offense similar to a traffic ticket by 2015, and finally regulating and taxing marijuana use by 2017 if the previous reforms are successful and monitoring the experience in state that have legalized marijuana use,” Hanger, who could not be reached for further comment, posted on July 16, 2013 on his site.
“It’s time to stop wasting money and clogging our criminal justice system with non-violent people whose only offense is possession of small amounts of marijuana. I’m proposing smart, safe, and compassionate reforms of our marijuana laws. My plan makes no changes in existing penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana and prohibits the use of marijuana by minors, similar to penalties currently in force for underage drinking.
“Regulating and taxing marijuana could bring at least $24 million a year to state coffers, revenue that could be directed to enforcing other laws and incarcerating real criminals.”
The current governor, on the other hand, opposes legalization even for medicinal purposes, his press secretary Jay Pagni confirmed to The Weekender, explaining Tom Corbett’s reasoning.
“Number one, it’s federal law. It is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance,” Pagni said, which means the drug has high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment, and has a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.
“As a prosecutor and as the attorney general, the governor has obviously seen the effects of drug use, regardless of what type of drug. It’s linked to crime, it’s linked to personal struggles for people with addictions, and the effects that it has on families and the community.”
Locally, Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna/Luzerne/Monroe) is opposed to the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, though, influenced in part by CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who originally opposed medical marijuana but recently changed his position after additional research, he is “open to additional direction from the federal government, and more specifically, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”
“I believe there is considerable scientific data on the therapeutic benefits of marijuana for a number of medical conditions or illnesses and that, based on that data, the FDA can and should make an appropriate determination on the value of these medical uses,” Blake said in an e-mail statement to The Weekender.
“I would like the PA General Assembly and the governor to advance public policies into law that serve to assure Pennsylvanians who can benefit from the proven clinical and therapeutic attributes of marijuana that they can properly and legally obtain those benefits to improve their quality of life. I am a cosponsor of a bill (SB 770) introduced in the PA Senate by Senator Daylin Leach that would legalize medical marijuana.”
The White House, however, remains staunchly against it.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy website on whitehouse.gov, the Barack Obama administration “steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana and other drugs because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.”
Noting that marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States, the office states that in 2011, 18.1 million Americans aged 12 and older reported using the drug within the past month, a significant increase from numbers reported in 2002 through 2008, though this is only 7 percent of the population aged 12 and older; most Americans surveyed, about 58 percent, had never tried marijuana.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Senator Pat Toomey declined to comment. Congressman Lou Barletta did not return a request for comment.
Dickson City business owner Charles McAvoy, 39, recently traveled to Colorado for a trade show and witnessed firsthand what he feels is “the evolution of the economy” with a “brand new industry.”
“When change happens, there’s a lot of uncertainty. The positive side of it is you’re able to bring something out of a black market that is totally unregulated, where the money doesn’t go to benefit society as a whole. In Colorado, they use the money to benefit their education system. In their first days of opening, they have sold out. 50 percent of their sales were out-of-towners,” he explained.
“They generated $375 million in gross medical marijuana sales, and when you look at any kind of business model, those numbers, when they’re that big, they’re even bigger than you see, just the positive effect that happens past that for the economy, for everybody involved with it.
“Teen drug use in the state of Colorado is down six points, where across the country, it’s up five points.”
He excitedly described the economy there as “bustling” and “like going to a different country.”
“When you walk around the city, there’s this tremendous energy. There are so many things going on. If you look at the state of Colorado, it’s half the size of Pennsylvania. We have a larger population here. A state like that is now chugging full-force into the economic future and creating this industry out of a black market,” McAvoy said.
“You walk around the streets (in Pennsylvania) and everybody’s bundled up and they look repressed because the economy is repressed. They read the newspapers and they see that people are getting laid off and the state can’t afford this and food stamp programs are getting cut. It’s all these things that create this aura of woe.”
The cliché of the lazy, unmotivated pot smoker quickly dissipates in Colorado, he said, as everyone he spoke to seemed lively and positive about the change.
“They don’t even think of it as a big deal. It’s almost as if the people there are so accustomed to it. I remember reading a story about how there was more dispensaries than Starbucks in Colorado. When I went to Colorado, I didn’t even see any; there’s not big flashing signs. It’s not craziness. It’s almost like it’s a very normal thing there,” he continued.
Likening it to the way alcohol and cigarettes are successfully regulated, McAvoy wrote a letter to several local politicians proposing a plan for marijuana regulation with a 10 percent tax, following Colorado’s example. He feels it would not only boost a suffering economy and aid other small businesses, but it would also medically benefit older Pennsylvanians.
“We have a high rate of diabetes in this state. They have just done studies in the University of California that show that it regulates glucose levels. People that have problems with their eyesight from glaucoma, it relives the ocular pressure better than all of the prescribed medications out there,” he pointed out.
“When we’re really looking at it, it’s a plant that grows out of the ground that used to be classified as medicine in this country before the medicinal surge went on. It was the third most common medicine next to aspirin for like every ailment.”
Nina Menichelli, another local small business owner that runs online boutique Bettie & Co., who is also an attorney, has followed the issue closely for quite some time and sees the benefits in legalizing the substance.
“I like to use gambling as an example,” she said. “How many years did it take for legalized gambling to happen in PA? All that money went to New Jersey and New York, which was a shame because it’s a big industry. We need to get out in front and be the trendsetter for once. People were so worried about how we were going to regulate gambling; they created an agency to do that. You have to write the regulations. Look, no one knows how it’s going to turn out in Colorado or Washington; it’s more or less a social experiment. The laws are going to evolve because there’s a lot of unknown, but there’s also a lot of good that can come out of it.”
Menichelli looks at it as an industry just waiting to be tapped into, and one that can help youth struggling to find employment in hard economic times.
“Think about the student loan crisis. Most young people are pushed into college because if you don’t go, society somehow sees you as a failure if you don’t have a degree. After graduation, how many young people can’t find employment, or are underemployed and then saddled with enormous student loans? The legalization of marijuana promotes entrepreneurship, another path for people who can’t find a job in an existing industry. In the United States, we need to start pushing people into trades, and the marijuana industry would offer jobs where you don’t necessarily need a college degree, and it also offers hands-on learning. Agricultural production is suffering in the country, and this is a way to revitalize it.”
Menichelli sees the marijuana business as going beyond the scope of what people are seeing it for today.
“There’s not only recreational use, there’s medicinal use, hemp production used in clothing and to create textiles. It can also be used in jewelry, bath and body products,” she listed.
“As far as the revenue part goes, it’s endless. Legalize it, regulate it, tax it. There’s already a booming industry out there – why are we not taxing that? You can increase production and it’ll create jobs in an industry, not to mention the production of items needed to grow the marijuana, medical dispensaries, cafés, jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, because if you can develop it in a pill form rather than smoking it, the possibilities are endless.”
There is always the other side of things, and for those who are against the legalization marijuana, they feel that people are not looking at the whole picture.
“I’m just not OK with it, in any capacity,” said Rebecca Briskie, a 37-year-old registered nurse from Moosic.
“People think the answer is to tax it and make money off it and it’ll fix our debt and it’s going to help not put marijuana in the wrong person’s hands – who is the wrong person? Anyone who does marijuana, drugs, drinks alcohol is a person; it doesn’t matter their socioeconomic status – when you’re intoxicated, you’re intoxicated. No one should be able to do drugs and operate in their lives that way. Would you want your surgeon to operate on you after having three beers? Would you want someone babysitting your child drunk? No. So why in God’s name would you want that same person to instead smoke a joint and do those things? It’s not OK for people to be under the influence of alcohol to do those things, so why is it OK for them to be under the influence of marijuana to do those things?”
With a four-year-old child, Briskie also sees problems with recreational use from a mother’s standpoint.
“I wouldn’t want him to be, when he’s 18, saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to go get high with my friends tonight,’” Briskie said. “I’m not the kind of person that’s OK with kids being at someone’s house drinking and the parents say they’re going to keep the keys, they have to stay in the house – no. I have realized as I’ve gotten older that there are major consequences for the things you do, both as a teenager and as an adult. We have enough problems with the drinking age being 21, and still there’s underage drinking. There are enough injuries and accidents daily because of it – why do we want to add more fuel to the fire?”
Briskie has seen the effects marijuana can have in both her personal and professional lives. She feels it’s one small step towards much worse things.
“I could name at least a dozen people I know that have smoked marijuana, got addicted to it, and went to something else because it was never enough for them. They mixed it with alcohol, they tried LSD, ecstasy. I personally have known people who are now dead, who have lost their lives to drugs because of starting at a young age, always from marijuana and alcohol.
“If you could see patients that are recovering addicts, in their 40s and 50s, people with no teeth,” she trailed off to take a breath, clearly affected by the visual evidence she’s seen of the downside to marijuana use. “Ask them how they got started, and most will say, ‘Oh, I started with a sip of beer, or we’d go get high at the tracks.’”
Briskie also points to an entity that was way ahead of the curve on cannabis laws as a place to take lessons from.
“Everyone is saying, ‘Let’s make it like Amsterdam. Does anyone realize what Amsterdam is now doing? The laws are changing, and that’s because there was obviously a problem.”
Dutch drug laws are unique and, according to amsterdam.info, they are “directed by an idea that every human being may decide about the matters of its own health.” They also hold “a conviction that hiding social negative phenomena does not make them to disappear – on the contrary makes them worse, because when concealed, they become far more difficult to influence and control.”
Drugs are divided into the categories of soft and hard, with soft drugs being cannabis in all forms (marijuana, hashish, hash oil) and mushrooms, and hard drugs being cocaine, LSD, morphine, and heroin. Hard drugs are forbidden, but soft drugs are legal under a condition of “personal use.” Smoking cannabis in public will not get one prosecuted, and even selling it (though technically illegal under the Opium Act dating from 1919, in which cannabis was added in 1950) is tolerated provided it’s done in a limited and controlled way. This brought forth the popular “coffee shops” of Amsterdam, where there’s typically a 5-gram maximum that’s sold only to adults.
Cannabis laws are ever-evolving in the country. In 2011, access to marijuana outlets were limited to Dutch residents only who could register to obtain a “weed pass,” keeping tourists out of coffee shops. Since then, the law still stands, but it’s now up to each city to decide how to apply it.
There’s been concern over the Netherlands backtracking on its drug policies, and a November announcement that coffee shops may have to close this year if they are near a school has further fueled the speculation. The measure has yet to go through.
Music and marijuana use have long been connected, but for Tim Farley, namesake of the local indie rock band Farley, the reason he’s pro-legalization boils down to one thing.
“Everything we were told about cannabis for the past four to five decades was a lie, and our society is now waking up to that fact. We are more informed, more aware, and much more pragmatic than ever before. The benefits of legalization greatly outweigh any and all arguments to the contrary. Prohibition doesn’t work, and we know this by looking at the history of alcohol. This is exactly the same thing, but cannabis actually has medical benefits as well,” he began.
“I don’t really feel like society’s attitude is changing simply because literally everyone I know, whether or not they partake, thinks the marijuana laws need to change. Now that we’re finally having an open and honest conversation about it, we’re realizing that the majority of people in the country actually agree that cannabis should not be categorized as a Class 1 drug along with cocaine, heroin, and meth. So in that sense, I don’t see a change in society because society has already been there for years.”
True artists, the 32-year-old Danville resident believes, don’t need to get high to be creative, but he noted that art and music have always been drivers of social change; what was “counterculture” yesterday is the norm today.
“I certainly think that the music and art communities have always been a place of acceptance, but I feel that the use of cannabis is much more prevalent throughout our society than previously thought. I can’t tell you how many different people, from different walks of life with different income levels, use, or have used, marijuana,” he said.
“Therefore, I don’t feel that the music/art community is the exception to the rule anymore; it’s just another circle.”
It’s a circle that Karyn Montigney, 20, of Carbondale, was introduced to through her band Badtown Rude. Marijuana use, she found, is common both on stage and in the audience at shows, and she has yet to see it affect anyone negatively.
“(Pot smokers) are normal to me. They’re not going out doing crazy things, not committing crimes. Most people think when someone smokes marijuana they’re going to go out and act crazy, but really they’re more apt to just sit on the couch and be a bum. The people that I know don’t act any different,” she observed.
“I think (the law) thinks that it causes you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. I don’t think that’s true at all. … I think your mind is a gateway drug more than anything. I know plenty of people that smoke pot and only smoke pot and only have ever smoked pot.”
Mentioned in Badtown Rude songs like “On the DL,” marijuana is just part of everyday life for the ska punk group, and while Montigney respects that police officers are just doing their jobs, she believes that law enforcement resources would be better utilized elsewhere.
“There’s no known deaths from people smoking pot. Alcohol kills thousands of people each year, and that’s legal, so I really don’t see why alcohol or even cigarettes would be legal and pot wouldn’t be,” she said.
Farley agrees that current marijuana laws are harsh and unfair.
“Mandatory minimums are unconscionable, and incarcerating people for nonviolent crimes such as possession is archaic and does more to destroy society than protect it. When you have a person spending more time in jail for possession of marijuana than someone convicted of rape, there is a serious problem. When you have judges actually telling defendants, in court, that they don’t want to send them to jail for having a bag of weed but that they have to because of mandatory minimums, there is a serious problem,” he emphasized.
It’s a problem that Anthony Viola of Scranton’s Family Animals is experiencing firsthand. The 27-year-old Mt. Cobb resident was recently charged with possession of a controlled substance over 30 grams. Tipped off by an informant unknown to Viola, police arrested him in his home for marijuana he had obtained for his own personal use.
As a nonviolent offender with no previous criminal record, he felt the officers were needlessly aggressive during his arrest and subsequent questioning.
“They put me in the foot shackles and the hand shackles,” he said.
“The dude that I was in the holding cell with was in there for selling heroin or crack or something, and he tried to hang himself while he was in there. It was crazy. I don’t know if this was all necessary, you know? I feel like I contribute to society hopefully as much as the next person.”
Working since he was 14 while pushing to turn his music into a full-time gig, Viola was most surprised that police felt that what he had done was “morally unjust.”
“In the place where they brought me for questioning, they had a big poster with a marijuana leaf that said something along the lines of, ‘Is it that innocent?’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God. They’re really intense about this,’” he recalled.
“Just the way the law works kind of blew my mind, that they could just have anybody working for them just snitching to get out of trouble, and that’s all they do is try to get the next person to flip, the next person to flip. They grilled me trying to get me to flip.
“If I get convicted of felony possession or intent to deliver because the quantity was over 28 grams, which was all for personal use – it’s just cheaper to buy it that way and have it for a month or two – …I probably can’t get a lot of jobs over something that I think is completely innocent.”
His sentencing was delayed, so in the meantime, he’d facing probation, a fine, and mandatory attendance of drug and alcohol treatments and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“I didn’t know that I could be looking at jail time, incarceration. I automatically lose my license even though it had nothing to do with me being in a car at all. There’s a lot of stipulations that I had no idea existed,” he noted.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous. I think it’s a lot to make money.”
Is this justice? That’s for Pennsylvania lawmakers, and the citizens they represent, to decide.