Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Gov. Corbett's green gateway

2009 File photo: Samuel Bagdorf of San Francisco lighting a marijuana pipe yesterday at a medical-marijuana clinic in that city.
2009 File photo: Samuel Bagdorf of San Francisco lighting a marijuana pipe yesterday at a medical-marijuana clinic in that city.Read more

When asked about legalizing marijuana in Pennsylvania — even for medical use — the spokesman for Gov. Corbett went "gateway."

"He believes that smoking marijuana is a crime, should remain a crime and that marijuana is a gateway drug," said spokesman Kevin Harley. He said Corbett would veto any bill attempting to decriminalizing cannabis, even if it only loosened restrictions on medical marijuana.

Asked the same question, Northampton Co. District Attorney John Morganelli went even further back in time. "I don't think we need more dopers running around," he said.

The Delaware Co. D.A. also opposes decriminalizing cannabis for medicinal reasons, telling the Delaware Co. Times that there were plenty of other treatments for cancer. And anyway, he added, smoking marijuana is bad for a cancer patient's lungs.

Here we go again: Reefer Madness. This rhetoric could be considered "behind the times" if it was your grandpa at the dinner table. But these are powerful individuals who should be less ignorant about such an important policy.

The "gateway" theory apparently held by Gov. Corbett has never passed the test of science. Buildings, however, could be filled with the scientific literature about the medical efficacy of cannabis and cannabinoids.

But D.A. Morganelli also gets more modern and politically nuanced saying that police don't look for marijuana — they just kind of happen on it traffic stops. Those K-9 units really are amazing at those happenstance pot stops: why train the dogs at all?

The amount of money and resources we spend on arrests and prosecutions is commonly downplayed by law enforcement. Police in Pennsylvania conduct 17,000 arrests of adults for possession of a small amount of marijuana every year. That's about half of all drug arrests.

Prosecutors and police use a whole arsenal of expensive equipment for small pot arrests: field tests for cannabis, urine and blood analysis, lab work, dogs trained to smell pot with drones sure to be next. Prosecutors and cops also pressure young people to become informants. For a kid in a college dorm room, getting busted with a bong is not a big deal. But it gets dangerous fast for that kid playing Miami Vice with the county detectives trying to score some "big" dealer.

In Philadelphia most pot arrests are not on the highways, they are mostly on the street. We also have the Small Amount of Marijuana program, because putting everyone caught with a joint into a holding cell - and then processing them through criminal court was expensive. The Small Amount program has saved the city almost $3 million every year since 2010.

But all of the old-school gateway rhetoric is to be expected in the Keystone State. After all, Harry Anslinger, the original prohibitionist who brought us the 1937 film Reefer Madness was from Altoona and is buried near Holidaysburg. All these old, long held misleading statements are what makes working to legalize cannabis so tough in Pennsylvania: We are taking the fight right where all of the the propaganda was invented seventy years ago.

The hearings held for the PA medical marijuana bill in 2009 and 2010 were impressive. Nurses, doctors, addiction specialists, advocates, patients all testified in favor of the bill. Legislators did not have the chance to vote but many voiced their support in hearings. And while pollster Terry Madonna doesn't give pot much of a chance in PA, his Franklin & Marshall query put approval of medical marijuana at 82 percent. No politician or issue even comes close to that number.

Pennsylvania Democrats Rep. Mark Cohen and Senator Daylin Leach, have sponsored bills to change state cannabis laws. Across the river in New Jersey a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession for all adults passed the Assembly and was sponsored by Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carrol, a staunch Republican and friend to Governor Christie. The N.J. decrim bill had 16 co-sponsors split between evenly the parties.

Gov. Corbett has not yet offered detailed comments on the issue of legalizing cannabis therapy or regulating marijuana and hemp for all uses. That's unfortunate given the dynamic, national conversation about decriminalizing marijuana. Corbett would do well to read the prophetic book written by former Pa. Gov. Raymond P. Shafer, Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding. 

In the meantime, recreational marijuana consumers from Pennsylvania can fly to Denver (ultimate gateway there). But patients who could benefit from cannabis therapy — those suffering from MS, HIV and cancer — will be forced to move to New Jersey or Massachusetts if they want legal treatment. It could be just a matter of time before Pennsylvanians want more those rights at home.

Goldstein smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML has been covering cannabis news for over a decade.

Contact him at