The potent politics of medical pot

    (Ross D. Franklin/AP File Photo)

    (Ross D. Franklin/AP File Photo)

    One of the most popular issues these days is medical marijuana.

    Landslide majorities – nationwide, and in states like Pennsylvania – believe that weed should be available to ease the pain of illness. Politically, at this point, it’s a no-brainer. But alas, there are too many politicians like Tom Corbett.

    Pennsylvania’s governor insists that pot is a gateway drug to heroin, which is something that clueless parents used to tell their kids circa 1967. Clearly he thinks it’s a universal scourge, unacceptable in any form for any purpose. Problem is, people say otherwise. According to a new Quinnipiac University poll, a whopping 85 percent of Pennsylvanians – crossing all demographic categories, including political party – now believe that doctors should be allowed to prescribe marijuana. That’s a 26-point hike since 2010.

    So will Corbett get himself in sync with the citizenry? Nah. Last Friday night, when Corbett was asked whether he’d be more amenable to medical pot if his healthy grandson Liam needed it to alleviate a serious illness, he simply ducked: “I wouldn’t be in a position to make that decision, because it would become emotional for me.”

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    Well. That’s the first time I’ve heard a politician plead No Comment because of mental trauma. If perhaps you were still wondering why Corbett is teed up to be electoral toast in 2014, wonder no longer.

    Twenty states have legalized medical marijuana (including New Jersey, which is still tweaking it), and two more states (New York, Maryland) seem poised to join the list soon. The issue is on the November ballot in Florida, where public support is reportedly as high as 82 percent – heavily fueled by once-wary seniors who want the pain alleviation. Indeed, the Pennsylvania and Florida mirror the sentment nationwide. A CBS News poll in January pegged general public support at 86 percent.

    So, the key question: If medical marijuana is so popular – if there’s even majority sentiment in Utah – then why are so many politicians still stuck in Corbett mode?

    Ignorance, for starters. Corbett’s gateway-drug canard is just one example. Last month, when the Maryland legislature debated marijuana, Annapolis police chief Michael Pristoop told a committee that Maryland shouldn’t follow Colorado down the road to perdition. He said, “The first day of legalization, that’s when Colorado experienced 37 deaths that day from overdose on marijuana.”

    Turns out, the credulous chief plucked that stat from a satirical news site, thinking it was actually true.

    As John Morgan, the Florida lawyer who is helming that state’s November referendum, remarked recently, “People are afraid of what they don’t know….We hate what we don’t know.”

    If that Maryland police chief had done any research, he would’ve discovered that the total number of overdose deaths from marijuana – ever – is reportedly zero. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t logged any; on the other hand, the CDC says that in 2010, roughly 23,000 people died from prescription drug overdoses, and another 26,000 died from too much alcohol. And speaking of alcohol, it’s “the high mark of hypocrisy” that Corbett is stonewalling on medical pot while seeking to expand (via privatization) the statewide sale of alcohol.

    Indeed, hypocrisy is endemic among the politicians who are balking on medical pot. Again, let’s quote Corbett. He said the other night that “we can start considering it” in Pennsylvania only after “I see the federal government legalize it.”

    That’s a convenient dodge. Corbett knows darn well that the GOP-dominated House will never vote to legalize medical pot nationwide. A current congressional bill would bar the feds from restricting medical pot laws, and even that one is going nowhere.

    But here’s where the hypocrisy kicks in: Republicans are always saying that we shouldn’t take our cues from Washington, that the states should do their own thing. Yet, on the medical pot issue, Republicans like Corbett are invoking Washington’s inaction as an excuse for doing nothing. Even though 84 percent of Pennsylvanians – including 78 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans – want the state to do something.

    Whenever this issue comes up, I think about Tom and Holly Brady, a couple I met in Las Vegas 12 years ago, when I was covering a statewide weed referendum. Tom had been a pit boss at Bally’s in Alantic City; they’d moved to Nevada in part because Holly had multiple sclerosis and Nevada at the time allowed patients to smoke pot under a doctor’s care. They were average folks, the antithesis of stereotypical stoners. Tom told me that weed had done wonders for Holly’s MS symptoms; he said that pot was “a plant that God put on this Earth for us.” Holly said simply, “All I know is, the pain goes away immediately. It doesn’t make me act like Cheech and Chong, it’s about survival.”

    Fortunately, thanks to all the sick folks who have attested to marijuana’s pain-reducing properties, and thanks to all the cumulative medical pot research (despite the longstanding federal curb on pot research), the political framing has radically shifted. Medical weed used to be viewed strictly as a law enforcement concern; today, it’s about care-giving and compassion. It’s a no-brainer that will outlast the brainless.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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