By Casey Chafin | The Duquesne Duke
As lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives consider a bill that would make Pennsylvania the 24th state to legalize marijuana for medical use, a group of legal and scientific experts met at Duquesne for their own debate on the topic.
Last Friday, the Africa Room was filled with representatives of the medical field, law enforcement and forensic science to discuss the facets of legalization.
Dr. Barry Logan, chief of forensic toxicology for NMS Labs, said Pennsylvania is behind the rest of the region in terms of legalization.
“In the Northeast, Pennsylvania is kind of an island in terms of there currently being no legal form of marijuana for legal or other uses,” Logan said. “If you look at the states around us, there’s been some degree of decriminalization or legalization for medical use.”
He said there is supported evidence that medical marijuana can treat seizures, pain, Multiple Sclerosis, and can also be used to help chemotherapy patients regain their appetites.
Some negative health effects include respiratory problems, according to Logan. He said marijuana smoke contains many of the same carcinogens as cigarette smoke, but cancer rates among marijuana smokers are roughly the same as they are among non-smokers.
“Part of that is probably because a heavy marijuana smoker might be smoking a few joints a day, a heavy cigarette smoker might be smoking a few packs of cigarettes a day,” he said. “So [the cigarette smoker] would be exposed to a lot more of these chemicals.”
Patrick Nightingale, a criminal defense attorney and executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said there has been a substantial shift in public opinion surrounding medical marijuana over the past decade.
“When I first became active in support of cannabis reform here in Pittsburgh and here in Pennsylvania,” Nightingale said, “I was met with bemused looks by my colleagues but that discussion has matured.”
Senate Bill 3, which would legalize medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, passed a vote in the Senate in May, but has not come up for a vote in the House yet. The bill would not allow for smoking or the sale of edible products, but would allow for extracted oils from the plant to be used.
According to Nightingale, it should be fully legalized because unless someone smokes 1,500 pounds in a single day, it is impossible to die from smoking the drug.
“You are more likely to die from tripping over a bag of marijuana, or having someone drop a bail of it on your head, than from consuming too much marijuana,” he said.
Rob Schwanbeck, president of the Duquesne chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, said he thinks marijuana should be legalized for economic reasons and to protect citizens’ freedoms.
“If I own my body, I should be able to put what I want into it,” Schwanbeck said. “And if I’m not allowed to put what I want into it, then who owns my body?”
Economically, he said the benefits of legalization would be increased tax revenue and less money spent in the criminal justice system.
The war on drugs has been a failure, according to Schwanbeck. He said law enforcement would be better suited to use the money they spend on stopping illegal marijuana trade and spending it to stop rapists, murderers and other violent crime offenders.
Meghan Cratty, president of the Duquesne National Community Pharmacists Association, said she believes legalization of medical marijuana is past due, but she has mixed feelings about widespread recreational legalization.
“I feel it would be difficult to effectively treat those patients who are using medicinal marijuana if they have complete access to the drug over the counter,” Cratty said.
She said chemically, it may be possible that marijuana could be a gateway drug, but the benefits for its use as a medication outweigh any risks.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana exhibits the qualities of a gateway drug because it does increase vulnerability to further drug use later in life, but the level of risk is comparable to tobacco and alcohol.