You'd think that, after performing 36,000 autopsies over his storied career, former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht would have seen it all. But there's at least one medical outcome he has yet to see: death due to marijuana use.
"It makes no sense at all to withhold this drug," Wecht told state Rep. John Myers (D-Philadelphia) and Jake Wheatley (D-Hill District) at an Aug. 19 hearing at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, on a bill to legalize marijuana for medical use.
House Bill 1393 would allow patients with medical conditions such as cancer, glaucoma and HIV/AIDS to possess up to six marijuana plants and carry one ounce of usable pot. Patients would be required to have an identification card issued by a physician, who could issue such cards for patients with ailments "treatable with marijuana in a manner that is superior to treatment without marijuana."
Based on Wecht's testimony, there are many treatments that marijuana might end up supplanting. While he'd never seen a death from marijuana, Wecht said he'd seen plenty caused by abuse of alcohol and other legal drugs. And when Wheatley asked whether legalizing pot would create a "slippery slope" for non-patients, Wecht said the problem already exists with prescription painkillers. When addicts end up on that slope, he testified, "They slide all the way down to the realm of Hades."
But opponents like Ronald Owen testified about fears of a different kind of slope.
"I'm here mostly as a father," said Owen, who told the legislators that he'd lost a daughter to drugs. His daughter's drug use began with marijuana, he said, and led to more dangerous substances.
"I don't think legislators are responsible enough to legislate medicine," he said, adding that the FDA, which does not currently recognize the medical benefits of marijuana, should remain the authority on the issue.
A similar bill is also before the state Senate, which is expected to begin holding public hearings on it in the fall. Patrick Nightingale, a criminal-defense attorney who serves as the executive director of Pittsburgh NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), says the likelihood of passing legislation is "closer than I ever thought it would be at this point in 2010."
A bill to legalize pot would seem to have broad popular support: According to a recent poll from Washington & Jefferson College, 80 percent of Pennsylvanians support legalization.
But despite the "unprecedented" public support reflected in polls, Nightingale says, there are still "myths" that need to be cracked before a bill passes. "We're not talking about giving kids medical marijuana." (Under the House bill, patients younger than 18 would need a parent's or guardian's written consent to use the drug.)
And for former narcotics officer Jack Cole, the hearing was just the beginning of a long haul.
"This is a great start, but only a start," Cole testified, calling the criminalization of marijuana possession a costly and fruitless endeavor.
"This bill will actually reduce marijuana use in Pennsylvania," he said. "Maybe it's just not as cool to smoke a joint when that's what grandma does for her glaucoma."