Pennsylvania OKs medical pot, joins 21st century

    Former U.S. Marine Mike Whiter

    Former U.S. Marine Mike Whiter

    We interrupt our daily trudge down the surreal campaign trail to share the festive news that broke late yesterday in — of all places — Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Because it’s rare indeed that anything good occurs in a parochial legislature where bipartisan common sense is in notoriously short supply.

    Amazingly — OK, it took a few years, but still — lawmakers in the reflexively reactionary House voted by a wide margin to legalize medical marijuana. The state Senate had already said yes. Spontaneous celebrations erupted under the capitol dome. Mothers with sick children wept. The governor will wield his pen on Sunday, making it official.

    Those of you who are unfamiliar with Pennsylvania’s choleric, polarized politics won’t view this news as a big deal; after all, 23 other states (including New Jersey) have already legalized pot as a pain reliever for a wide array of illnesses, and Ohio will reportedly follow suit this summer. But rest assured that if medical weed can triumph in Harrisburg’s cesspool of ignorance, it’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the national zeitgeist has shifted forever.

    As recently as 2014, Pennsylvania was saddled with a governor — the doomed Tom Corbett — who still peddled the canard that marijuana was a gateway drug to heroin. And most Republican lawmakers were happy to echo their leader, despite conclusive contrary research from the American Academy of Sciences (1999), the British Journal of Addiction (2002), and the American Journal of Psychiatry (2006). Corbett and the state GOPers were still determined to treat medical marijuana as a law and order issue, not as health/compassion issue, and no high falutin’ scientists were gonna budge their certitude.

    But look what happened yesterday: Medical pot passed with ease, because the House Republican tally was 74-46 in favor of legalization.

    Incredible. I had assumed that Pennsylvania would hit this milestone, with enlightened Republican help, around the time that Halley’s comet reappears. In 2061.

    Granted, House Speaker Mike Turzai voted no — during backstage negotiations he became so emotional in his opposition that he actually cried (reportedly, “a John Boehner-like breakdown”) – but even his number two guy, the majority leader, voted to legalize. And one thumbs-up Republican lawmaker, Russ Diamond, framed the mood shift perfectly: “Sick people do not want to get high. They want to get better.”

    Goodbye, law and order issue; hello to health. The majority Republicans were swayed not just by the plights of medical patients, but by the medical research — mounting evidence of weed’s therapeutic value, despite the federal roadblocks that hamper the study of “Schedule One” drugs. As a result, Pennsylvania has OK’d pot (in pill, oil, vapor, or liquid) for 17 health conditions, including AIDS, autism, cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and sickle cell anemia.

    And another key factor swayed the Republicans: The polls. During the last three years, 85 percent of Pennsylvanians — including 78 percent of self-identified GOPers — have said yes to legalization. It’s pleasing to discover that, even in Harrisburg, politicians realize the tactical idiocy of defying the American mainsteam.

    Nirvana won’t happen overnight, of course. State bureaucrats have to write up the regulations, and that’s expected to take 18 months (with a loophole that allows the parents of suffering children to immediately obtain legal weed from other states). Presumably, the rules governing doctors and patients will be written strictly to ensure that Pennsylvania doesn’t become a den of reefer madness. Which is kind of amusing when one considers that Pennsylvania’s booze guzzlers cause 10,000 car crashes every year.

    But even though progress comes slowly, we’ll take it. And perhaps state Republicans were swayed by one last factor: Their ideology, state’s rights.

    President Obama signaled back in 2009 that the feds would stop hassling the states that legalized medical weed; and last December, he signed a bill extending the federal “cease fire.” Federal hassling had been a signature drug policy of the Bush administration, yet here was Obama, the so-called liberal, sticking up for the principle of small government. Hence the strangest of bipartisan bedfellows: Harrisburg Republicans and Obama laissez faire, in the service of therapeutic medicine.

    What’s next on the miracle front? A sagacious Donald Trump?

    Ok, let’s not get carried away.

    Speaking of Trump. At a rally yesterday in Pittsburgh, he asked his besotted fans: “How’s Joe Paterno?”

    Trump apparently thinks the ex-sainted coach is alive, despite his being dead. That’s par for the course. Two years ago Trump told a conservative confab that Jimmy Carter was dead, despite his being alive.

    He probably assumes that his pal Putin can get him a sitdown with Lenin.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal