Medical marijuana legalized in Pa.
By Julia Terruso, Staff Writer philly.com
HARRISBURG - Hundreds of cheering families, legislators and patients watched Gov. Wolf sign a medical marijuana bill into law Sunday afternoon, many hopeful at last for relief from debilitating pain, seizures and other medical conditions.
Allie Delp watched from her mother's lap, purple sunglasses strapped around her wide blue eyes to protect them from the light. Large crowds are tough for Allie. The 4-year-old suffers from Dravet syndrome, a severe seizure disorder, and most days she stays in the dimly lit, cool comforts of her home to avoid triggers. Today was too important not to make the drive from Ford City, said Allie's mother, Amanda Delp.
"It feels like a dream. It really does," Delp said. "If you would have asked me four years ago if I would be advocating for medical marijuana, I would have told you it's just people wanting to get high. It took my daughter for me to open my eyes and realize it can save people."
A row away from Allie, Robert Billhime Jr., 45, sat with his girlfriend and 6-week-old napping son, Aspen. Multiple back surgeries left Billhime addicted to painkillers three years ago. He lost his job, his home. Addiction nearly cost him his life, he said. "If it wasn't for the cannabis I wouldn't be here. I won't go back. I won't be an addict," he said wiping a tear from his eye and looking down at his son.
Billhime called the day a huge step in the right direction but said discrimination and misunderstanding persist. "It's still not going to change the bigotry already in the legal system. If you're a cannabis user, legal or not, you're prejudged simply because you refuse to be an addict."
Billhime said he almost lost custody of his children because the family court judge ordered he take a drug test while he was using cannabis for back pain. He had supervised visitations for six months.
In the packed rotunda Sunday there were hundreds of stories like these. People trying to make it through their pain, determined, loving parents doing whatever they could - and then some for their kids. Wearing green for cannabis - and purple, for epilepsy awareness - they erupted in cheers as Wolf signed the bill into law.
Wolf thanked the advocates, particularly the mothers who brought their kids to rally at the Capitol to give a face to the people the legalization would benefit.
"When you have people who represent a cause as eloquently and in as heartfelt a way as the advocates for this has done, it shows we can get something done that means something," Wolf said. "We're not responding to a special interest here; we're not responding to someone who makes campaign contributions - we're responding to people who are telling us there is a real human need here in Pennsylvania."
There was much congratulating among legislators for bipartisan work on the bill.
"We won!" Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon), who rallied Republicans, said to a roar as he took the podium. "This is your day!"
Democratic Sen. Daylin Leach, who represents parts of Delaware and Montgomery Counties, recalled introducing a medical marijuana bill in 2010 and failing to find a single cosigner. "The pain of illness touches us all eventually and so we all united to defeat [pain] . . . We worked together, we studied, we begged, we cajoled and we argued - and we convinced our fellow legislators to join us."
The law allows people suffering from 17 specified conditions - including cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and seizures - to access medical marijuana in pill, oil, or ointment form at dispensaries statewide.
The Department of Health is expected to oversee what will become a new industry in Pennsylvania, with dozens of dispensaries, hundreds of workers and potentially thousands of patients. Patients would use identification cards, after receiving a doctor's prescription, to access marijuana from one of 150 dispensaries statewide. All dispensaries would be licensed by the state and face intense regulation.
Getting the system up and running could take more than 18 months before a patient can actually access medical marijuana. A provision in the bill allows families with children under 18 to obtain medical marijuana from other states where it is legal without fear of prosecution.
Temporary regulations are also expected to be written to permit adults access if they can demonstrate they suffer from one of the 17 conditions listed in the legislation.
Delp hopes to use that provision to get Allie cannabis oil in the near future. Her daughter has as many as 80 seizures a month, she said. One in five children with Dravet doesn't live to adulthood, Delp said. Many are mentally challenged and require care the rest of their lives.
"Cannabis not only gives us hope to help control the seizures, but there are children in legal states where it's been shown to help their cognition," Delp said. "Maybe she'll be able to catch up, lead a normal life."
Allie is an active tomboy (she did barefoot laps around the rotunda before the bill-signing got under way). She doesn't know to avoid triggers for the seizures that threaten her life.
"She loves riding her four-wheeler, chasing her sisters around, just being a kid," Delp said. "This - it won't solve everything - but it gives us hope, and we need hope."
In an ardent display of just how much the criminal justice system revolves around the drug war, the city of Philadelphia has seen a drastic fall in arrests after decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.
In the year since the law took effect, arrests have fallen nearly 75 percent and arrests and citations combined are still 42 percent below the total arrests made by the department during the same time the previous year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
Spurned by then-City-Councilman Jim Kenney, who went on to make it a top priority of his successful bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination, the law made possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana punishable by a $25 fine, and public use by a $100 fine.
It took effect on Oct. 20, 2014.
In a recent interview, Kenney said that, if elected mayor, he would attempt to implement policies that would expunge the records of those arrested before the law took effect, and fight for complete legalization.
“My goal is zero arrests,” Kenney said. “I think it’s worked here and in other cities.”
Philly police Lt. John Stanford said the department has started accepting more juveniles caught with marijuana into a diversionary program, which could account for some of the drop but admitted that since the passage of the reform, officers are prioritizing other crimes.
“It’s not the biggest challenge on our plate,” he said. “In some of our areas, we’re going to be focused more on shootings and robberies. Marijuana may take a backseat in those situations.”
Derek Riker, chief of diversion courts at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, said those arrested for possessing marijuana that are accepted into the cities diversionary program are completing the program at a higher rate than ever before.
“It seems people who do get arrested for weed are taking it a little more seriously and making a bit more of an effort,” he said. “I think because they’re surprised they’re getting arrested, because everyone else is getting a ticket.”
The program allows people to have their case dismissed if they pay a $200 fine and attend a class at the community justice center.
Riker says his office is handling only about a dozen marijuana-related cases weekly since the law change, compared to about 55 before.
Decriminalization has also saved taxpayers money by not having to house petty drug offenders and expend resources pursuing the sticky icky. Kenney said that if elected, he would commission a study on just how much decriminalization has saved the city.
City of Brotherly Love is decriminalizing marijuana possession and public consumption, ending a drug policy that has disproportionately targeted African Americans and Latinos in Philadelphia for decades.
After a long summer of negotiations between Mayor Michael Nutter and supporters of Councilman James Kenney's decriminalization bill, the mayor agreed to sign the legalization measure, which will take effect October 20. Support from Philly cops, African American community organizations, and black media outlets helped forge the decriminalization law that passed 13-3 through the city council — a margin that would have overridden a potential mayoral veto.
"We're the largest city in the US that will decriminalize successfully," said Kenney's policy director Chris Goy. "And in doing so, forged our own path against the state." Marijuana possession is still illegal in Pennsylvania, and lawbreakers are remain subject to arrest, fines, and jail time.
A separate medical marijuana bill is still under consideration in the state legislature, and according to a Quinnicpiac University poll conducted in March, 85 percent of Pennsylvania voters support ending the state's ban of medical pot. But, despite overwhelming support among voters, according to VICE News sources in Harrisburg, the state's capital, the bill will likely fail to become law.
Philly's decriminalization bill makes marijuana possession of less than 30 grams equivalent to a $25 jaywalking ticket. Smoking weed in public is a bit more serious: Anyone caught toking will have to fork over $100 or complete nine hours of community service.
Possession of weed previously carried a $200 fine, plus mandatory viewing of a three-hour video on the dangers of drug abuse. The video is widely considered a joke and ineffective, a symptom of the dysfunctional way the city, state, and country deal with the possession of tiny amounts of weed.
"After three years of closely monitoring Philly, we still remain concerned that racial disparity exists at every level, relating to the stop and frisk program," Paul Messing, an attorney who works closely with the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia, told VICE News.
Though marijuana advocates and civil rights advocates consider Philadelphia's decriminalization ordinance a victory, concerns still remain, including a fear that the city's police force won't embrace the measure. Philly cops still use the controversial "stop and frisk" tactic, which ostensibly strives to reduce crime by eliminating vandalism and other petty crimes that proponents say are correlated with more violent and destructive acts.
"In particular, we have seen striking racial disparity in arrests for small amounts of marijuana," Messing said. "We're hoping new legislation reduces or eliminates that disparity."
Black and Latino suspects account for 83 percent of the 4,000 weed possession arrests every year in Philly, city council member James Kenney told the New York Times. Nationally, the racial disparities are a well documented concern that, according to an ACLU report, may have influenced President Obama and other policy makers to shift their stance on prohibition.
Marijuana enforcement laws are unquestionably a civil rights issue, according to attorney Harry Levine. "A classic civil rights issue is equal treatment under the law," Levine told VICE News. "If you have enforcement against some people but not other people; then you have a civil rights question."
But despite the overwhelming evidence in the wake of the ACLU's report, opponents of Philadelphia's decriminalization law remained unconvinced.
Historically, cops and their lobbying groups have opposed most attempts to decriminalize weed or make medical and recreational pot legal, according to Levine. In California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana, the state's Police Chiefs Association has long been an opponent of plans to enact a statewide regulatory framework for the drug.
To get the cops on board with Philly's decriminalization, Kenney and his allies partnered with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) — an organization of current and former law enforcement officials that aims to raise awareness about drug policy failures. After Philadelphia's cops heard firsthand from a 30-year narcotics veteran from Maryland, it became clear that the sky wouldn't fall if weed possession became the equivalent of a jaywalking citation, Goy said.
Police support is vital since pot remains illegal under Pennsylvania law, a fact that's not going to change in the immediate future. Because weed is still illegal at the state level, cops can, theoretically, arrest people in Philly on suspicion of breaking state law. Convictions for breaking the state law carry fines of up to $500, 30 days in jail, plus a criminal record.
"With the cooperation of our police department, we helped forge the agreement to pass the bill," Goy said. "The police commissioner said that they're going to do everything they can to implement the bill, and they even recognize there are a lot of questions about those of have gotten arrest records in the past."
The criminal record that comes with a state conviction is especially damaging to those who rely on federal government assistance programs such as subsidized housing and college loans, not to mention the difficulties of getting a job with a drug-related conviction, Goy said.
But the major bellwether in the Kenney's effort was bringing the city's African American community organizations on board with the legislation. "Councilman Kenney credits the real turning point to black radio and the black clergy for coming to support the bill," Goy said. "They were avid supporters."
Personal testimony also played a critical role in moving the debate, such as the story from a young mother who lost her job because she got busted with five dollars worth of weed in her pocket, Goy said. "The human element of what we're talking about is a lot more effective than polling numbers."
Photo via Flickr
by Jason Grant
Pick up that cell phone, and make a call.
Tell how being arrested for a small bit of marijuana in Philadelphia has changed your life.
That's the latest request from City Councilman James Kenney, as he continues to pound on Mayor Nutter to sign into law a measure that would make possessing a small amount of pot punishable by only a $25 fine - with no arrest.
Since Tuesday, Kenney's staff have been handing out fliers promoting the at-large councilman's new marijuana arrest hotline, which encourages callers to leave a detailed message and "if possible, please include information about the loss of job opportunities or schooling opportunities."
Kenney's staffers said they've been showing up at a muncipal courtroom and legal clinics to advertise the hotline.
So far, between Tuesday, when the line opened, and Thursday afternoon, 10 people have left messages, they said. Each would get a call back by Thursday's end, said Chris Goy, Kenney's policy director. He said all told of being arrested after Kenney's bill was approved, on June 19.
The bill, which Council approved 13-to-3, calls for people caught with 30 grams or less of pot - about an ounce - to be issued a citation and fined. But the measure can't become law before September unless the mayor signs. Nutter has said he's weighing the criminal-justice implications of it.
Kenney, a Democrat who is considering a 2015 mayoral bid, has been pressing Nutter to sign the bill. In a letter made public Tuesday, he noted that 264 citizens had reportedly been arrested since Council approved the bill, and argued that "every day Mayor Nutter fails to act, more young people will be ... jailed for a minimal offense."
On Thursday, during an interview, Kenney said of his new hotline, "I want people... to talk about their situations. [And] I want the mayor, who seems to be a bit detached from the regular people on the street, to see what he's allowing to happen."
Mark McDonald, the mayor's spokesman, responded briskly Thursday to the councilman's increasing rhetoric:
"The first thing I would recommend is maybe he [Kenney] should urge people to not walk the streets carrying pot."
He called Kenney's bill "legislation a particular council member, who does not have a very extensive history of legislative victories, is attempting to promote as he tries to figure out if he has the resources and vision to run for mayor."
The hotline number: 267-570-3726.
Via Philly News