By David Loomis
INDIANA – With luck and justice, Mary Cease, of Clymer, soon may win her lawsuit against the Indiana County Housing Authority for denying her federal housing assistance because she has a prescription for medical marijuana.
On March 25, she and her pro bono Pittsburgh attorney appeared in a county courtroom. Judge William Martin heard Cease, 67, a Navy veteran, tell her story of being prescribed cannabis to get off opioids for chronic back pain, to aid recovery from several surgeries and to calm post-traumatic stress.
“I got a lot of pain,” Cease said in a March 30 phone interview.
On the stand, she said, she told a tale of a bad trip through a bureaucracy that denies her a housing subsidy because of a Catch 22: One federal agency granted her housing assistance; another federal agency, according to the county housing office that administers the program locally, denied it.
Following a century-old script, the federal denial is a bad reaction to marijuana. It doesn’t matter if it’s legally prescribed by a physician. The feds classify it as a Schedule 1 drug, right beside heroin.
MEANWHILE, federalism is challenging that classification in most states, including Pennsylvania, where lawmakers legalized medical marijuana in 2016. Thirty-three states (plus the District of Columbia) have legalized medical marijuana; 10 states (plus D.C.) have legalized recreational pot.
In November, voters in two states legalized medical marijuana, and in one state they legalized recreational pot.
Opinion polls back up the ballot box. The Associated Press and the University of Chicago this month jointly published a survey reporting that 61 percent of Americans support legal marijuana, up from 57 percent two years earlier. For the first time since the survey started in the ‘70s, a majority of Republicans – 54 percent – said they supported legalization. Two years earlier, Republican support was 45 percent. Among Democrats, 76 percent support legal weed.
Pennsylvanians also poll strongly for legalization. A majority of Keystone State voters — 59 percent – told the Franklin & Marshall College poll this month that pot should be legal. In 2006, only 22 percent thought so.
Closer to home, Pennsylvania municipalities — including Harrisburg, Philadelphia, State College, Erie and Pittsburgh — are passing ordinances to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and to treat it like a traffic fine.
In Indiana County, agreement on medical marijuana is wide and deep. A proposed medical marijuana dispensary in 2017 drew support from county commissioners, the Chamber of Commerce and state lawmakers.
SUCH POPULAR SUPPORT for marijuana legalization illustrates a myth about American political polarization: On a broad range of important issues, a supermajority of Americans agree:
— 76 percent of Americans say they support higher taxes on the super-rich.
— 67 percent support a requirement that employers provide paid maternity leave; 70 percent support required paid sick leave.
— 83 percent support strong FCC net-neutrality rules for broadband internet.
— 60 percent of Americans support stronger privacy protections online.
— 71 percent say we should be able to buy drugs imported from Canada; 92 percent say Medicare should be able to negotiate for lower drug prices.
SUCH SUPERMAJORITIES also illustrate the unresponsiveness of federal lawmakers. Consider the congressmen who represent Indiana County in Washington. On five key cannabis issues, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-15th District, and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., oppose them all, according to the non-profit HeadCount.org and its Cannabis Voter Project. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., R-Pa., supported medical marijuana legalization at the state level.
A bill to allow cannabis businesses – such as medical-marijuana dispensaries — to use the federally regulated banking system advanced last week in a House financial-services committee. But all three lawmakers are listed as opponents of the measure.
THE VOTERS may not always be right. But when two-thirds of them – young and old, progressive and conservative – agree on something that promotes the general welfare, then their elected representatives should show some respect for the will of their constituents.
Granted, lawmakers must legislate details of decriminalization. And granted, opinion polls do not rank marijuana legalization among the nation’s top priorities.
But where lawmakers are not responsive and voters can exercise the ballot-box referendum and initiative, such direct efforts have been successful. Half the legalization efforts in the states succeeded through voter referendums or initiatives.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf responded to the fall 2018 elections by expressing cautious interest in marijuana legalization. And Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who campaigned for legalization, set off on a statewide listening tour that will take him to all 67 counties, including Indiana on April 14.
Fetterman said his tour is telling him that public support is stronger than what surveys show.
MARY CEASE hopes that growing popular support for marijuana legalization lends judicial support for her lawsuit. The issue is medicinal to her.
“If you want the benefit of the entire plant, you need to use the entire plant to get the entourage effect,” she said.
But she also endorses full legalization of marijuana. She will be lobbying for it at the lieutenant governor’s April 14 stop here. She hopes he will heed her story.
Local and federal officials should heed it, too.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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