Local debate over legalizing medical marijuana

PHILADELPHIA - February 3, 2014

2014 could turn into a landmark year for medical marijuana legalization and that includes Pennsylvania.

Advocates for medical marijuana are excited about recent happenings in Harrisburg and even in Philadelphia. But for those who depend on it for relief of their symptoms, the action isn't happening fast enough.

37-year-old Mike Whiter, co-chair of Philly NORML, served 10 months in Iraq at Abu Grab prison.

"There are explosions, there are friends getting hit; there are friends getting hurt, friends dying. This is really hard to talk about for me," Whiter said.

Despite being illegal, the South Philadelphia veteran uses marijuana to treat symptoms of post traumatic-stress disorder.

"I would walk around a corner and see a trash bag and think it was a bomb that was going to blow me up," Whiter said.

Before trying marijuana, he went to the VA Medical Center for help and was prescribed medications, dozens of them.

"They made me worse. They made me more depressed; they turned me into a zombie," Whiter said.

Whiter says he tried to commit suicide three times before turning to medical marijuana to treat his anxiety and paranoia.

"It saved my life," Whiter said.

Now legal for medical use in New Jersey, officials from Compassionate Care Foundation in Egg Harbor Township say they already need to expand after only being open for four months.

"We have about 75 new lights coming in on Wednesday which will ramp up our production so we'll be producing maybe three times more than we are now," CEO Bill Thomas said.

The Compassionate Care Foundation is a fully self-contained operation.

They grow the plants, harvest them, package, and sell to patients under strict guidelines by the state.

Currently, there is legislation pending to make recreational marijuana legal in New Jersey, as well.

Pennsylvania, meantime, recently held hearings to discuss the possible legalization of medical marijuana and Delaware's governor is considering opening a medical marijuana facility.

From a medical standpoint, Dr. Amy Ondeyka of Cooper University Hospital says marijuana can help patients suffering from a variety of ailments that include chronic pain, seizures, inflammation, and muscle spasms.

She says the appeal is that it comes with very few side effects, is gentler on the body, and is much less addictive than some legal prescription medications.

"Just in 2010, deaths from overdose or abuse of oxycodone and Vicodin, there were over 16,000 deaths," Ondeyka said.

However, she does caution that there is a lot we don't know about long term marijuana use and the risks associated with it.

Among those who are not proponents of legalizing marijuana is Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

But he does say a proposal to eliminate the arrest requirement in the city for small marijuana possession is something he would consider.

"If there is a way in which minor offenses we can keep officers on the street and make it a little easier in terms of processing, then that is something that I would certainly review very carefully," Ramsey said.

There appears to be a lot of public support in favor of legalizing medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.

However, efforts to legalize would likely be hotly debated.

We want to know what you think.

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Compassionate Care Foundation in Egg Harbor, NJ

Philly NORML organization

PA bill pending in Harrisburg

New Jersey's medical marijuana program

Delaware medical marijuana program

The Delaware Medical Marijuana Act

Philadelphia City Council marijuana arrest proposal

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