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Philly420: Pennsylvanians want legal marijuana

Why is there a disconnect between public sentiment and politicians?

A new poll released this week by Qunnipiac University shows strong support among Pennsylvania voters for marijuana reform. The data also highlights a huge disconnect between state politicians and the people they represent.

According to the poll an astounding 88 percent of Pa. voters favor medical marijuana.

A majority, 51 percent, support full legalization for adults.

Medical cannabis access has been polling above 80 percent in the Keystone State for more than five years. Franklin & Marshall College polls have showed the same result. No other issue or single politician has consistently received that level of support. Ever.

But lawmakers have moved at an agonizingly slow pace to deliver a law to match public sentiment. The current bill moving through Harrisburg, SB3, proposes an extremely limited scheme allowing for just 10 qualifying medical conditions while prohibiting vaporization and smoking. Under the restrictive plan, registered patients never would have access to whole plants but instead get to purchase a few forms of edibles and oils.

I would venture that when voters think of medical marijuana, they imagine dried flowers being rolled into joints. This method is both safe and effective, providing instant relief while edibles take hours to have an impact. No word yet from the sponsors, State Sens. Mike Folmer and Daylin Leach, on any amendment that could expand the bill.

The Pa. House Health and Judiciary Committees tomorrow will hold their second information gathering hearing in Harrisburg. They held a similar hearing in Philadelphia two weeks ago focusing on medical professionals. Tomorrow's hearing will focus on the law enforcement perspective. The House committees are not considering a specific bill. Since 2009, the Pa. House has refused to post a medical marijuana bill for even a committee vote.

The disconnect becomes even more stark when it comes to allowing adults to consume cannabis for recreation in Pennsylvania. Although bills have been offered during the last few legislative sessions, there have been few co-sponsors and no committee hearings.

Some politicians are outright opposed to the concept despite gladly accepting more than $560 million per year in state-operated wine and spirits sales. Fully legal marijuana could bring in just as much in taxes.

Other politicians hide behind federal law or offer a more willowy "let's wait and see what happens in Colorado" answer to the question.

Of course, it has been more than a year since weed sales have been happening out West, the biggest result is that Colorado has stopped tens of thousands of arrests while collecting tens of millions in taxes. The fanciful fear-mongering of negative impacts have all failed to come to fruition.

Perhaps the most common argument against marijuana from Pa. politicos is that if it were legal, more people would smoke it. But the Quinnipiac poll offers a vital insight. When asked if they would use cannabis, only 15 percent said they would be likely to try it. That means that issue has reached an important threshold where supporters of reform are not necessarily consumers but regular citizens tired of enduring the costs and consequences of prohibition.

The Quinnipiac poll also surveyed voters in Ohio and Florida. It was billed as a window into "swing states" for the presidential election.

Candidates' positions on marijuana reform have become a key factor in local and national politics. Gov. Tom Wolf repeatedly supported medical cannabis and marijuana decriminalization on the campaign trail, carrying his vocal support into office.

Jim Kenney's championing marijuana decriminalization in Philadelphia has earned him key endorsements in his run for mayor. Even Lynne Abraham, who prosecuted more than 65,000 people for possession during her tenure as District Attorney, has slightly softened her stance. During a forum at Central High School last week, Newsworks reported that five of the mayoral candidates - Milton Street, Nelson Diaz, Melissa Murray Bailey, Doug Oliver and Jim Kenney -  said "yes" to legalization when asked by students.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who announced his presidential run today, has been a harsh critic of prohibition.

Winning over young voters who overwhelmingly support legalized cannabis -- as well as Hispanic and black voters who bear the brunt of marijuana arrests -- means that candidates need to have a good answer on the topic. But just having a good sound bite does not result in tangible reform.

If Pa. had a ballot initiative process the people here would already have made the moves seen in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. Pennsylvania state legislators would do well to offer a real endgame for marijuana prohibition and stop ignoring the will of the voters. Unable to change the law on a ballot, voters may use the ballot box to elect people into office who will offer something more than hand wringing and foot dragging on marijuana reform.

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at