The memo issued last week by the US Department of Justice, which signaled the feds will not interfere in states allowing commercial marijuana sales, will not put an end to more than 20,000 annual arrests for pot possession in Pennsylvania. But it does give lawmakers in Harrisburg an important opportunity to have a national impact.

The Keystone State is unlikely to legalize cannabis anytime soon, but change is in the wind. Here is the increasingly green picture:

- There are active bills to change cannabis laws in PA for both medical marijuana and full legalization

- Two candidates, St. Sen. Daylin Leach who is running for US Congress and John Hanger who is in the race for Pa. Governor, have made cannabis a core issue of their campaign platforms

- A strong and active grassroots network exists across the state supporting the issue with rallies and events like The Hemp Heals Music Festival

By the numbers

There has never been a more popular question asked by Franklin & Marshall pollsters of Pennsylvania voters than the one posed about medical marijuana. An astounding 82% of Pennsylvania voters have favored access repeatedly in three separate polls. It is almost difficult to convey the immense significance of this level of support; no other topic (or individual politician) comes close. Most Democrats and Republicans -- from every corner of the state -- clearly want Harrisburg to legalize medical marijuana.

However, when it comes to full regulated and taxed recreational marijuana voters are about evenly split. The latest F&M poll shows about 54% oppose it, but that is still a big shift. Pennsylvania voters previously polled with much stronger opposition, so it seems there are quickly changing sentiments on the issue.

A Tale of Two Bills

For four years, a bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Cohen of Philadelphia has been active in the General Assembly to create a system for medical marijuana access.  Hearings were held in 2009 before the Pa. House Health and Human Services Committee.  Potential patients, doctors, nurses along with community and religious leaders expressed their support.

Dr. Harry Swidler, an emergency medicine physician, addressed the legislature during those 2009 hearings. "Marijuana is non-addicting. There is no physical dependence or physical withdrawal associated with its use. It is, from a practical standpoint, non-toxic. Marijuana is safer by some measures than any other drug. There is simply no known quantity of marijuana capable of killing a person."

The bill was re-named The Governor Raymond P. Shafer Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act  in 2011, to honor the Republican who guided a commission for President Nixon on the topic of marijuana. In 1972, Shafer personally delivered a report to the White House saying that cannabis should not be classified with other narcotics or included in the Controlled Substances Act. The commissioners recommended that personal marijuana possession should be federally decriminalized. There were clear considerations about the medical use of cannabis in the 1972 report.

Advocates are hoping for new hearings on the Pennsylvania medical access bill this fall.

Earlier this year, St. Sen. Leach made national news by introducing a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. The Regulate Marijuana Act currently is assigned to the Senate Law and Justice Committee and advocates are pushing for hearings.

"This past November, the people of Washington State and Colorado voted to fully legalize marijuana," said Leach, who is also running for a seat in Congress. "It is time for Pennsylvania to be a leader in jettisoning this modern-day prohibition, and ending a policy that has been destructive, costly and anti-scientific."

Representative Mark Cohen is planning on introducing the companion bill in the Pa. House this fall.

One of the fallback arguments from politicians offering a position on either bill has been the potential conflict with federal law. The series of statements from US Attorney General Eric Holder, formalized in memos from Deputy US Attorney General James Cole, essentially eliminates that cover. While the DOJ position has no tangible effect for cannabis consumers it resoundingly allows state lawmakers the right to experiment with cannabis reform…at least on paper.

The greenest roots

On August 31, I participated in "Smoke Down Prohibition", the eighth in a series of monthly rallies for legal marijuana at the Liberty Bell supported by PhillyNORML and local comedy activism crew The Panic Hour. Since December 2012 thousands of people have attended the events; many have smoked cannabis at 4:20PM as symbolic act of civil disobedience.

National Park Rangers issued second citations to me and a Libertarian NJ State Senate candidate Don DeZarn.  The US Attorney is requiring us to appear in federal court to face the simple possession charge; a rare event because almost all of the more than 750,000 simple pot cases in America are in front of state or municipal authorities.

The protest in Philly is just one of many events happening statewide. A group called Pennsylvania Hempland Security has held successful rallies in Reading, York and Lancaster this summer and they are planning more for the fall. PittsburghNORML and the NORML Women's Alliance are holding their third public cannabis rally this weekend featuring speeches and a march.

On Saturday, Sept. 7, former Philadelphia Flyer Riley Cote brings the Hemp Heals Music Festival back to Penn’s Landing.  In its second year, the event draws thousands with a full set of bands like Rebelution, Matisyahu, Collie Buddz and ZION I along with speeches from local activists like NA Poe of The Panic Hour and yours truly.

Hemp is an important aspect of marijuana reform. Because of the federal Schedule I status of all varieties of the cannabis plant it is illegal to grow even THC-free varieties. Before the 1940s Pennsylvania had a rich history as one of the most productive hemp farming areas of the United States.  All of the hemp for clothing and fiber used here in the US comes from Canada or Eastern Europe.

Having a former star hockey player put up a regular hemp awareness event shows just how far the tide has turned.

Cote told YahooNews, "It seems almost outrageous that I have to stick up for a plant, but I'm not the only one."

Last fall, another hemp advocate called for reform around here: Willie Nelson from the stage of Farm Aid in Hershey. Nelson brought Native American advocate John Trudell up before the final set.

"The economic and environmental realities of industrial hemp; teach it to the young," said Trudell."Have your organizations and the people who represent you; and take it upon yourself, to learn the realities of industrial hemp  It will save the family farm. [Hemp] will give the young farmer a future. It's a part of American history. It's always been here… And in the next election 2016… Vote Hemp!"

With growing celebrity involvement and tremendous public support we may see greener political pastures in Pennsylvania for marijuana more sooner than later.

Contact Chris Goldstein at or @freedomisgreen on Twitter.

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.