New Jersey is taking the lead. Will we follow?
And that's the way it will continue to be if State Rep. Mark Cohen's medical marijuana bill dies. So I spoke to Leon Czikowski, a research specialist for the Pennsylvania House who's working with Cohen on the issue. He told me, "The bill is before the Health and Human Services Committee, so right now it's beyond our control. However, medical marijuana patients have met with Congressman Oliver, the chair. I can't speak for Mr. Oliver, but I'm pretty sure he'll add it to his schedule.
"So I'm cautiously optimistic, even though there are about six Republicans who are adamantly opposed to it."
After that, Czikowski says, it's a process of education. "Once the bill gets out of committee, it has to go through the whole House, then the Senate, and then onto the governor. So now you're talking about educating 203 House members to get the 102 votes necessary to pass. You need 26 Senate votes, and the governor's signature. It's like pushing a large rock up a hill: it's hard but once you get to a certain point, momentum really builds."
I asked Czikowski whether he thought medical marijuana in New Jersey, the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, would have any impact here in Pennsie. "From what I'm reading," I said, "it almost seems like they'll have a parallel to our state store system for liquor. Will we have Pennsylvania police staking out the weed distributors the way they stake out Jersey liquor stores?"
Czikowski didn't think so. "I think the political impact will be positive," he said, "because when our neighbors pass laws like this, others follow. Legislators say 'Let’s take a look at it.' In fact, one of our arguments is 'This is what New Jersey does.' The patient's doctor needs to recommend using marijuana, the health department provides a special ID, which you can then take to a compassion center."
Ken Wolski, RN, MPA, and chief executive of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey, expects the state to establish its medical marijuana program by the end of this year. He set me straight on what Jersey's considering.
"It will depend on which bill reaches the governor," Wolski said. "Say the Senate bill passes. This allows patients who want to use marijuana to register with the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, where they'll get (an) ID card permitting them to possess, use, and cultivate marijuana. Under this bill, patient can grow up to six plants, and possess up to one ounce of marijuana. The Assembly bill is much more restrictive: in their version, patients can’t grow your own, but have to go rely on nonprofit alternative treatment centers. On the other hand, the Assembly's bill doesn't list limits for patients: it a bit more like a business. Personally, I think Senate version is better: the Assembly's responding to fears about the California model."
As for the regional impact, Wolski told me, "Since the New Jersey bill has gotten movement, bills have been introduced in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
"The real issue isn’t Pennsylvania vs. New Jersey, but the feds, who insist marijuana has no medical value, it's unsafe, and can't even be used under a doctor's supervision. It’s absurd: doctors prescribe more dangerous, highly addictive drugs every day, and yet they can’t prescribe marijuana. So yes: it will affect the region, but most importantly it affects the feds: if New Jersey passes this bill, that'll make 14 states, with more than 25 percent of population, with medical marijuana. The federal government will have to see reality. The best impact passage will have is to increase pressure on the feds to revisit the inappropriate way marijuana is scheduled."
I think it's clear that progress is steady but slow (and this is just for medical marijuana: Pennsylvania's going to have get as desperate as California before they even consider legalizing and taxing pot for recreational use and revenue enhancement).
Which means that for the immediate future, my buddy Barry's going to have to keep stuffing weed down his pants and hoping it doesn't fall out. Either that or move to New Jersey at the end of the year.
Unrelated to medical marijuana, State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pillegi is holding our city hostage in a misguided effort to force Ed Rendell to accept the Senate Republicans' insane budget. Sean Dorn, writing at Young Philly Politics, published a must-read letter, that I urge all everybody to read. (Here's a related petition.) Long story short: Sen. Pileggi is refusing to consider Philadelphia's temporary one-cent sale tax hike -one stinkin' penny- until the state budget passes, a process that could take months.
This may force Mayor Nutter to lay off 3,000 city workers, including 732 police officers and 200 fire fighters, and to close all its libraries and recreation centers as well as the entire park system: Pileggi is creating a public safety disaster for me, you, and everyone else who lives in Philly.
But guess who's paying for the stadium in Chester? Me, you, and everyone else who lives in Philly, every single time we pay a toll on the Ben Franklin, the Betsy Ross, the Walt Whitman, and the Commodore Barry Bridges: the first three serve Philadelphia, and get WAY more traffic than the Barry. As Dorn writes, "So in essence Philly residents, including 3,000 city workers potentially facing layoffs, are helping to support [Pileggi's] new stadium every time they drive across the Walt Whitman bridge to go to the Jersey Shore." Is that fair play on Pileggi's part?
I don't think so, and neither does Dorn: so sign the petition asking the governor and the DRPA to "stop funding for Chester's soccer stadium as long as Philly's city budget is held hostage."
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If you totally spaced on the Marijuana March down South Street on Saturday, you can still maintain your cred: Just tune into State Sen. Leach’s press conference today. He’s got a little surprise for Pennsylvania’s toking class.
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