"Marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol, and it simply does not make sense to punish adults who are making the choice to use a less-harmful product," said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project. Tvert co-directed last year's successful ballot initiative in Colorado to legalize and regulate cannabis like alcohol.
Marijuana-legalization and -decriminalization bills are pending in state legislatures and organizing is underway for ballot initiatives in the 2014 and 2016 elections. Tvert expects voters in at least four more states to legalize the drug in 2016.
Pennsylvania isn't there yet, politically. But state Sen. Daylin Leach, who has introduced bills in Harrisburg to legalize marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, said the state will join Colorado and Washington eventually - and reap the financial benefits.
"It's inevitable. Prohibition is a policy that's becoming harder and harder to sustain," said Leach, a Democrat who represents parts of Montgomery and Delaware counties. "This will pass. Now, it may take a couple of sessions."
Kate Auerhahn, a Temple University criminologist who teaches classes on drug laws, predicted that relaxing marijuana laws would lead to a temporary spike in usage, then probably a leveling off, perhaps slightly above current levels.
"I don't think that's a sign of the apocalypse," Auerhahn said, noting that a majority of the 18.1 million Americans who admit to using marijuana in the past month do not use any other illicit drugs and are not likely to commit crimes.
But many law-enforcement officials, such as Delaware County District Attorney John Whelan, are convinced that the country is heading in the wrong direction.
"It'd be ridiculous to make it legal," Whelan said. "The easiest way to explain marijuana is, it makes you stupid. If you talk to someone who's on marijuana, you're going to say, 'They're stupid.'"
For Mike Whiter, 36, a Marine combat veteran from South Philly who served in Kosovo and Iraq, the plant has medicinal value. Over five years, doctors had prescribed him dozens of medications, including antidepressants, benzodiazepines and opiates, for posttraumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. He discovered nine months ago that cannabis works much better.
"They give you these pills that have suicide as a side effect," Whiter said. "I'm not on any more pills. I just smoke pot. It saved my life."
Whiter recently founded Pennsylvania Veterans for Marijuana Legalization. It doesn't matter if it's for medicinal or recreational use, he said. Smoking pot just shouldn't be a crime.
"Before, I was a recluse. I stayed in my house, scared to leave. I would never have done this had it not been for cannabis," Whiter said. "I'm returning the favor. If I get in trouble for returning the favor, so be it."
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