Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly420: 2015 proved greening of America well underway

Politics and marijuana are mixing more than ever.

Politics and marijuana are mixing more than ever.

Sometimes like cream and coffee. Sometimes like oil and water.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, there were wins, losses, and stalemates for cannabis reform in 2015.

Five years ago, nearly every story with the green stuff, on both sides of the river, was about busts and arrests.

Now you are more likely to see articles about bills, laws, ordinances, the latest edibles, the ins and outs of dabs, and fun events like the Hemp Heals Music Festival.

This year we saw decriminalization firmly take hold in Philadelphia. Arrests dramatically decreased in favor of the civil citations since late 2014.

Looking at the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System today, the marijuana possession arrests performed in 2015 by Philadelphia police are at 596 adults and 143 juveniles.

Compare that to 2013 - the last full year of absolute criminal prohibition - when 3,754 adults and 563 juveniles were arrested.

That's an 84 percent reduction in arrests for adults and 75 percent reduction for juveniles.

It is a landmark change. The sky has remained in place. There were no new cracks in the Liberty Bell. In fact, Philadelphians have gained some freedom.

The issue was championed by Jim Kenney when he was on City Council. Political analysts credited the ordinance as helping to aid Kenney's successful bid to become the mayor. It wasn't just the elf suit.

One of his opponents early on, former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, came out against decriminalization. We took her stance to task here at Philly420. It cost her dearly. Even after she flipped 180 degrees, and suddenly endorsed the popular policy, it was too late.

The shift in Philly has been so compelling that the Pittsburgh City Council recently decided to follow suit with a matching policy.

Things have not gone so well in Harrisburg. A medical marijuana bill in the Pennsylvania legislature that was promised by year's end has failed to materialize yet again.

What started out two years ago as a strong effort to bring relief to seriously ill residents has been steadily eroded.

Grain by grain, the foundation of a good bill was washed away by cynical politics.

Despite the effort of patients, families, experts and advocates, the state Senate passed a bill that excluded smoking, limited qualifying conditions and withholds whole plant material from those who need it most.

The House then watered down what little was left. Although partisanship certainly came into play, the real quagmire became infighting among House Republicans.

Rep. Matt Baker held the bill hostage in the health committee for months before handing it off to the rules committee.

Political brinkmanship and eventually, the budget debacle took center stage. Medical marijuana has remained on a back burner.

The legislature has a two-year cycle. So they have all of 2016 to continue the delays and weaken the legislation further. Advocates are still hoping for positive changes. But the writing seems clearly on the wall that only an extremely limited program will possibly reach Gov Wolf's desk.

Such an effort will only be compassion on paper while patients in the real world will simply continue to utilize the ubiquitous underground market.

Other state elected officials tried to go completely backwards on cannabis policy.

Representatives Tom Catagirone and Barry Jozwiak sought to triple the basic fines for marijuana possession. But their bill did not even get a committee hearing.

Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, also tried to revive mandatory minimum sentences for certain marijuana offenses.

If you were caught baking some bud-filled brownies in an apartment within 1,000 feet of a school, you would have automatically been stuck with two years in state prison. Marsico's bill passed the House with bipartisan support, but thankfully, it fizzled in the Senate. More than half of Philadelphia is within a Drug Free School Zone.

One light at the end of Harrisburg's dark tunnel this year was industrial hemp.

The bill to bring back a crop that William Penn, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson planted with pride saw broad support. The hemp bill passed unanimously through committees in both chambers. Thanks to the effort of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition, the bill won the support of major farming associations as well as legislators.

State Sens. Mike Folmer and Judy Schwank even joined ex-Flyer Riley Cote for a hemp building workshop.

Back in 2012 during Farm Aid in Hershey, music legend Willie Nelson brought Native American poet and activist John Trudell on stage.

"As a person of the land and as a human being, I relate to farmers as being people of the land. With all of the problems that we are confronted with and are faced with…I would like you all to consider learning the realities of industrial hemp," said Trudell.

"It will save the family farm," Trudell added, prompting cheers from the huge crowd.

Sadly, Trudell passed away in December. He would be pleased that Pennsylvania started taking his appeal to heart.

Still, Harrisburg did not make any major strides for the bigger issue of full legalization this year.

No statewide decriminalization bill has even been introduced in Pennsylvania, and Sen. Daylin Leach's tax-and-regulate bill got a cold shoulder from both parties.

In the Garden State, the same was true — more politics than progress.

Gov. Chris Christie, stumping and scrambling for a place in the Republican presidential shuffle, opted to become America's most vocal prohibitionist.

Again and again, Christie trotted out ridiculous assertions about marijuana legalization. He also promised to be the big bad wolf if he gains the Oval Office. Christie claims he would attempt to blow down the the laws of Colorado, Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Washington DC.

In his home state, where he is often absent these days, marijuana possession arrests approached record levels in recent years.

In 2013, there were 24,765 adults busted for less than 50 grams of pot. That's more than for heroin and cocaine combined. In fact, arrests for those harder drugs saw a slight decrease. Christie's drug war is focused on weed.

Meanwhile, N.J. state Sen. Nicholas Scutari held a committee hearing on the concept of full legalization. The bill got lukewarm reception from his colleagues, but it does have the support of the municipal prosecutors, the ACLU-NJ and local advocacy groups.

Once Christie leaves office in 2017, there could be more momentum.

Asbury Park's Council passed a resolution supporting a regulated marijuana market. Atlantic City's municipal leaders also seem keen to use cannabis to bolster local tax revenue.

Two new Alternative Treatment Centers did open in New Jersey.

Overall, though, New Jersey's medical marijuana program stayed small. There are about 5,000 registered cannabis patients. Only four facilities are consistently open. All of the operators have some tie back directly to the Christie administration. Some also have staffers who previously worked for years in Big Pharma.

There is more room for immediate optimism on the federal level. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker got in on the federal reform effort. He co-sponsored, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the CARERS Act. It is the first federal bill in the Senate that would legalize medical marijuana nationwide.

Booker's bill did raise awareness and gained some co-sponsors, but seems to have lost momentum.

A more profound federal policy shift was proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders. He introduced a bill to completely remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

Sanders' concept is the same move that former Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond P. Shafer tried to get President Richard M. Nixon to adopt in 1972 when the CSA was created.

In other parts of the country, there were also some important marijuana stories:

Washington, D.C. went forward with a full legalization move that was approved by almost 70 percent of voters. The law does not allow retail stores, but does allow home cultivation within city limits.

More than one million Ohio voters said yes to legalization in 2015's only major ballot initiative, but they weren't enough. Issue 3 was defeated at the polls by a 2-to-1 margin, leaving all the cannabis in the Buckeye State underground.

Delaware passed a statewide decriminalization bill over the summer that went into effect Dec. 18. Criminal penalties were replaced with civil fines for adults, but those under the age of 21 can still face a misdemeanor.

Looking forward to 2016, everything is aligned to see more significant progress.

Massachusetts, Arizona, California and Nevada will likely vote on full legalization. Vermont could be the first state to end prohibition through the legislature.

Locally, we are likely to see hemp pass in Pennsylvania and perhaps a very limited medical cannabis products bill. More cities may follow Philly and Pittsburgh with decrim while waiting for statewide reform. New Jersey could see a more concentrated effort on full legalization leading up to Christie's exit.

In political races, from city governments to the race for the White House, cannabis policy will be a factor.

The public, in every poll this year, saw new benchmarks of support for medical cannabis and outright legalization.

The greening of America is firmly underway.