80 percent of Pennsylvanians support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, survey shows

Originally appeared at: http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2010/10/80_percent_of_pennsylvanians_s.html He’s in his 30s now, a man with serious health issues, never figuring he’d be in the position he is now: a regular marijuana user. Back in his high school days, he remembers, he used to scorn the pot smokers. He was an athlete, and saw drug use as inconsistent with sports. “I would make fun of those kids, call them potheads” said the Lehigh Valley man, who did not want his name published because he’s breaking Pennsylvania law nearly every day. “Now I guess I am.” He is a big supporter of a bill pending in the state Legislature that would legalize the use of marijuana for medical reasons. The bill was introduced by Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, who concedes that he does not yet have the votes to pass it. He’s sure the time will come. The bill has set off a spirited debate between those who see marijuana as a helpful medical substance, and those who see the bill as merely a precursor in an attempt to legalize marijuana generally, and also fear it is a gateway to other drug abuse. Cohen’s proposal is under discussion as a survey showing that some 80 percent of Pennsylvanians are in favor of making marijuana legal for medical purposes. The survey, by two Franklin & Marshall College staff members, also showed that only 33 percent of the state’s voters favor the outright legalization of marijuana, a development that is one of the root fears of those who oppose the medical marijuana bill. “Even though there is broad popular support for legalizing medical marijuana in the state, prospects for its legalization seems slim,” wrote the two college surveyors, G. Terry Madonna, director of the center for politics and public affairs and Berwood Yost, director of the center for public research. That kind of public policy debate is interesting to the Lehigh Valley man who now smokes pot daily in order to ease the pain of his treatments for lymphoma. He was diagnosed with the disease in 2008, after having served in the Army in Iraq. He began chemo therapy at a hospital near his Lehigh Valley home, and with it, he began a regimen of drugs designed to ease the nausea and pain that came with the treatments and the disease. One drug alone cost him, out of pocket, $400, for pills to fight nausea. He was also taking two different pain medications. The result, he said, was that he slept all the time, or sometimes not at all, wasn’t eating, was losing weight, and couldn’t work. “I was a zombie for 20 hours a day,” he said. He told an old Army pal what was going on, and the friend told him about marijuana. “You’re not going to believe it,” the friend told him. He stopped taking most of the pain medications, and instead, now gets about a half-ounce of marijuana each week, and uses a vaporizer to inhale it every night after work. He said vaporizing it somehow doesn’t make him high, but it does ease the pain, and has really re-made his life. He feels relaxed for the first time since his diagnosis; he has gained 22 pounds, and is now once again working regularly. Moreover, a sense of anger that he had been carrying around since his diagnosis disappeared, and he no longer feels hung over from the drugs. The marijuana costs him about $50 per month, he said, far less than the prescription drugs he had been taking. Situations like his are at the center of the debate about medical marijuana. Leading the opposition to the bill is Rep. Matthew Baker, R-Tioga County, who fears that a medical marijuana bill is actually a “Trojan horse to legalize the use of pot throughout the nation.” He quotes a 2006 Federal Drug Administration report that says, “no sound scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States…” He believes many Republicans and Democrats are opposed to medical marijuana. Asked what then might be motivating Cohen, he offers the view that Cohen, of Philadelphia, represents a far more liberal constituency than some other legislators, including himself. That is one of the few points on which Cohen and Baker agree – that his constituency is more liberal that Baker’s. Madonna and Yost, in their survey report, address the demographic issue this way: “Support for legalizing marijuana declines with age, among self-described conservatives, and with born-again Christians,” the report said. But, they went on to say, “Just about every demographic group supports the use of medical marijuana, but the likelihood of supporting it is higher among women than men, among liberals and moderates than conservatives, and among those who do not consider themselves born-ahead Christians.” How many people actually use marijuana? The National Institute on Drug Abuse said a 2007 survey showed that 14.4 million Americans over the age of 12 had used marijuana at least once in the month before being surveyed. The marijuana advocacy group called the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) says pot has been used by some 100 million Americans overall, and that it ranks just behind alcohol and tobacco in popularity among recreational drugs. In Pennsylvania, the figure for pot users is based on guesswork. Chris Goldstein, a Philadelphia NORML chapter board member, said there are 40,000 arrests in the state for possession each year, and that’s not nearly enough to put a dent in traffic. He guesstimaed that one in three Pennsylvania adults use marijuana. Many believe there is a link between that kind of pot use and the “graduation” to harder drugs. One of those people is Sharon Smith, of Mechanicsburg, who Baker suggested as an interview subject. Smith’s daughter Angela, then 18, died of a heroin overdose in 1998, her body discovered in a creek. She said her daughter began smoking pot at the age of 14, but then graduated to harder drugs until finally she ended up a heroin user. Smith is vehemently opposed to drugs, and has been crusading against them ever since. She operates a web site called www.momstell.org. Cohen, who is the chairman of the House Health Committee, where Democrats hold the majority, dismisses the complaints of critics in the other camp that say that pot can be addictive and lead to harder drug use. “It may be as addictive as chocolate,” he said in an interview. That is at some odds with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which says that “long term marijuana abuse” can lead to addiction.”Long-term marijuana abusers trying to quit report irritability, sleeplessness, decreased appetite, anxiety and drug craving, all of which make it difficult to quit,” the institute said. Cohen argues that marijuana is widely available now. “People who want marijuana know how to get it,” he said. He compared the legalization of marijuana to the change in gambling laws. Years ago, he noted, the illegal numbers racket in most American cities made money off of gambling. Then the state decided to get into the lottery business, and the money – rather than going to illegal gamblers – goes to help senior citizens. But he knows he doesn’t have the support to move the bill for a vote now. “I think people are used to striking an anti-drug pose,” he said. An article that discusses the issues around a bill pending in the state legislature in Pennylvania that would legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.