The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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December 28, 2013

Pot plan fires up Valley’s backers

SUNBURY — John Hanger doesn’t use marijuana.

Never has, he said Saturday, and would not “unless I needed it for medical reasons.”

And Hanger wants everyone — including children — who needs cannabis for medical reasons to have access it to it. Legalizing marijuana is a key part of his platform as one of nine Democrats vying for the nod in the May primary for next fall’s gubernatorial race.

“I’d be angry if my doctor said I need it, but I have to go to Colorado to get it,” said Hanger, the only one of the nine candidates who publicly advocates legalizing medical marijuana in Pennsylvania as 20 states and the District of Columbia have done.

It’s not just medicinal marijuana use he wants legitimized. Hanger wants marijuana decriminalized in Pennsylvania, which he thinks wastes too much money — about $350 million annually — arresting, trying and imprisoning people for possessing small amounts of marijuana and its paraphernalia. He also sees it as an additional agriculture product and a valuable source of tax revenue.

To this end, Hanger has a three-step approach to changing Pennsylvania’s relationship with pot:

n Fully approve medical marijuana use in the Keystone State.

“Doctors should prescribe medicine, not politicians,” Hanger said. “We have politicians saying (doctors) can’t prescribe cannabis to cancer patients and children with seizure disorders. ... That’s cruel and barbaric.”

n Decriminalize grass. As many as 25,000 people per year would no longer would be arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Under Pennsylvania’s Criminal Code, 1 ounce or less is a misdemeanor charge equaling 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Possession of drug paraphernalia lands a person up to a year in jail and with fines up to $2,500.

n Regulate and tax marijuana. Revenue would benefit education and property tax relief, especially for senior citizens.

“Hemp was a big cash crop here in the 1920s and 1930s,” Hanger said, noting Hempfield in Lancaster County was named for the many hemp fields that grew there. Marijuana “has many different uses, and there is a lot of opportunity here,” he said.

“We need to have sensible reform plan,” Hanger said, particularly for medical use. “We are well behind the 20 states that prescribe it to patients.”

The medicinal use has brought marijuana legalization front and center in the state. Colorado is the most cited of legalized states because it’s where a special extraction of cannabis, promising in the treatment of pediatric epilepsy, is available.

That extraction is cannabidiol, or CBD, a marijuana compound credited with various medical applications without the high, which comes from THC. The drug is administered to children with a dropper and to adults in pill form.

In November, Pennsylvania state Sens. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, and Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, introduced a bill to legalize this form of marijuana for medicinal use in the commonwealth. They did so at a rally attended by parents of children suffering from seizure disorders, many of whom are moving to Colorado seeking the drug to help their seizure-saddled children.

One mother, Dana Ulrich of Reinholds in Lancaster County, is looking to Colorado to get the medicine for her 6-year-old daughter, who suffers as many as 400 seizures a day. Another mother at the rally, Amy Houk, a lifelong Lawrence County resident, and her family are moving to Colorado to get access to the drug for their 5-year-old son, who suffered a seizure while attending the rally.

Leach also has sponsored a bill that would legalize marijuana for personal consumption, another angle that Hanger favors.

“Personally, I don’t use it,” he said. “I realize for some people, using is like having a bottle of wine. They do it in the privacy of their homes. I want them to pay taxes and have it properly regulated.”

Hanger said he’s met parents of children “who have begged me to deal with this, because they have a good child who got caught with a joint. It’s caused problems with employment and college applications. ... We need to stop arresting so many people for these nonviolent offenses. We need to stop ruining people’s lives.”

Not arresting people for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana “would get a lot of people out of the court systems, jails. ” We need jobs, not jails,“ he said. ”Having marijuana regulated and taxed is exactly part of that plan.“

Eliminating the $350 million spent on prosecution and incarceration and, in turn, regulating and taxing cannabis, Hanger said, may bring as much as a half-billion dollars annually into Pennsylvania’s pocket.  

Numerous Valley residents support Hanger’s stand, given posts Saturday on the Facebook page of The Daily Item, where the newspaper asked people whether they agree with Hanger’s marijuana legalization plan for Pennsylvania. Yet a poll on The Daily Item’s homepage found views from respondents split nearly 50-50.

Cristy Harding and Victoria Rosancrans both cited children with epilepsy who would benefit from the pot-derived drug.

“It has less side effects than the medicines my son is on for epilepsy,” Harding said. “Depakote (used to treat seizure disorders) can cause liver failure and kill my son. We have to have blood work every six months to check that his liver is OK.”

Wrote Rosencrans: “My patient’s mother just met with (a state lawmaker from the Valley) on Friday about this very topic. Children are dying from seizures every day. This medication would give parents some hope for the future health of their children.”

Wrote Angelalynn Buch: “Legalizing it provides jobs, boosts the economy, stops deforestation, lessens the drain on taxpayer dollars for correctional facilities and improves the life of so many suffering with these ridiculous man-made drugs that destroy our bodies.”

Others were skeptical.

Judith Parker said it’s “debatable” the number of people with actual medical need for marijuana, fearing it would lead to abuse.

“Are they then going to share with people they know just for the sake of getting high? It’s a proven fact that even pot destroys human brain cells,” she said. “Does (Hanger) want to contribute to a bunch of idiots walking and driving around?”

Patricia Davis questioned whether marijuana is really the most important issue for Pennsylvania.

“The state is going downhill,” she said. “So many things that need to be tackled first. It’s just not that high on the list.”

Hanger, however, sees the matter as one of utmost importance. Legalizing marijuana in Pennsylvania “would get a lot of people out of the court systems and jails,” he said. “We need jobs, not jails. Having marijuana regulated and taxed is exactly part of that plan.

“Let’s strip away the hypocrisy” surrounding marijuana use in Pennsylvania, Hanger said. “I live in the real world, and I want to regulate and tax it.”

n Harrisburg reporter John Finnerty and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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