When an envelope from the Northeast Pennsylvania Cannabis Network arrived postage due, it inspired more than a few newsroom jokes.
And as early attempts to contact the network met silence, reporters donned their best Tommy Chong voices.
A week later, Pennsylvania marijuana advocates would celebrate a victory on June 19 when Philadelphia’s City Council voted 13-3 to dramatically reduce the severity of marijuana penalties in the state’s largest city.
Pending the mayor’s approval, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in the city will result in just a $25 fine and a citation. Arrest would be removed from the equation.
Drive two hours north and the marijuana conversation seemingly disappears. The Northeast Pennsylvania Cannabis Network’s founder, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, wants to change that.
He explained how the network is currently a one-man team, and he was rallying with other activists in Harrisburg in support of Senate Bill 1182. The legislation, which advanced to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday, would legalize medical cannabis use on a limited basis.
Following a brief communication delay, he said he’d be happy to meet, but he would rather not be named or photographed.
But his fear of retribution may not be unfounded.
Marijuana has been a lightning rod for controversy in the United States for nearly a century. Long before Bob Dylan passed John Lennon his first joint, the film “Reefer Madness” attempted to demonize the plant, and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 functioned as de facto prohibition.
Despite gaining widespread mainstream acceptance and varying levels of legal status in some states, marijuana is still illegal and carries a potentially harmful stigma.
Weed as medicine
“I think it’s unfortunate he has to feel that way,” said Bethlehem medical marijuana activist Deena Louise.
In the Lehigh Valley area, she said, her open support of marijuana doesn’t worry her.
But as a former resident of both Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre, she said she finds her current home more progressive.
Decades of anti-marijuana propaganda created a stigma that has outlasted scientific research on the subject, Louise said.
“I understand the mindset,” she said, “but I don’t understand not moving past it.”
Louise’s son Christopher inspired her entry into the marijuana debate, she said. He lives with a rare genetic disease called tuberous sclerosis, causing seizures and autism, and according to Louise he has been prescribed 27 different medications in his 17 years.
Treatment options have run out, she said, and the only medications they haven’t tried carry warnings of nightmarish side effects.
Still, she said the conversation on marijuana didn’t interest her (“I tried it once when I was younger,” she said. “I think it stinks.”) until she saw a CNN documentary by Dr. Sanjay Gupta last August.
She’s since begun work as an ambassador with the Campaign for Compassion, a group advocating for medical cannabis in Pennsylvania.
Louise sometimes visits the Northeast Pennsylvania Cannabis Network’s Facebook page, she said, and it has proved a source of solid information.
“Cannabis is not the cure-all, be-all, end-all,” she said. “I just think we should have the ability to try it like we would any other medicine.”
A slow start
But Louise and the network differ in their end goal, she said. While her fight is for her son’s treatment, the cannabis network favors wider use.
“For me, it’s more of a civil rights and social justice type thing,” the NEPA network’s founder said. He doesn’t want to see anyone “harassed” for their marijuana use, he added, whether recreational, industrial, or otherwise.
According to the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) — despite being the home state of a place called Hempfield Township — 20,577 marijuana possession arrests were made in 2012 in Pennsylvania.
The network’s founder waxed about America’s marijuana history and championed Pennsylvania’s “Hemp Heritage” during a short meeting in a Scranton coffee shop.
The meeting was scheduled to run longer, but the founder arrived late, saying he slept through his 9 a.m. alarm.
A word comes to mind: “typical.”
But in fairness, rallying at the state Capitol before working third-shift back home seems a bit more exhausting than passing out watching “SpongeBob SquarePants” reruns. And when the founder did arrive, he certainly came apologetic and prepared, towing a stack of notes and a list of his contacts willing to go on record.
Between his activism and his real life, the cannabis network’s founder is a tired guy. That’s why he said he hopes to build a team within the organization if he can gather more support.
Talking pot in NEPA
“For one person, especially on a topic such as this, it definitely requires patience,” he said.
Right now, he said the network’s campaign is strictly information-based, most visibly consisting of rapid-fire Facebook updates linking to marijuana-related news. Eventually, he said he’d like to find a place for supporters to meet.
People he knew with an interest in marijuana, he said, were oblivious to the debates popping up around their own state, mirroring some of those from around the country.
“Wow, people really don’t know what’s going on here,” he recalled thinking.
And with that, the founder said he decided to get involved. Initially, he wanted to start a NORML chapter in the region, he said, but settled on more modest short-term goals when he was unable to find people to fill the necessary positions.
Finding supporters in private is rarely a problem, but people are often unwilling to take their support public, the founder said, so he began working one Facebook post at a time to acclimatize the public to the issue through the spread of information.
“It’s a classic case of the majority being quiet,” he said.
America: Toking through time
Marijuana entered the legal spotlight almost immediately when the first colonists arrived in North America. Since then it has recurred as a focal point in United States politics, enduring all-out prohibition and a series of hazy shifts in legal status.
Stiff penalties and federal condemnation have done little to curb its popularity, and the plant has grown into a mainstream pop culture icon, appearing as a recurring theme in both music and film.
Decades of conflicting reports have resulted in a narrative clouded with fudged facts and dubious information. Below is a timeline of events, both notable and verifiable, in America’s long and conflicted history with marijuana.
• 1930: Harry J. Anslinger, of Altoona, Pennsylvania, becomes the first commissioner of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. Anslinger would play a prominent role in the campaign to outlaw marijuana.
• 1936: Propaganda film “Reefer Madness” is released, making dramatic claims about the destructive effects of marijuana on the youth. The film has been re-released numerous times and is considered a cult comedy.
• 1937: Congress passes the Marijuana Tax Act, a law drafted by Anslinger, criminalizing the possession of marijuana for those unable to acquire tax stamps for approved medical or industrial use.
• 1944: The LaGuardia Committee Report concludes anti-marijuana propaganda is baseless. It says cannabis is not addictive “in the medical sense of the word” and not a “determining factor in the commission of major crimes.” Anslinger dismisses the report as unscientific.
• 1960s: Marijuana use, among other things, becomes widespread within the counter-culture movement. Meanwhile, American soldiers in Vietnam also begin smoking pot.
• 1964: Bob Dylan introduces The Beatles to cannabis. Later, Paul McCartney wrote “Got to Get You into My Life” as an ode to marijuana.
• 1969: The U.S. Supreme Court decides the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 is unconstitutional in a ruling on Leary v. United States.
• 1970: Congress repeals the Marijuana Tax Act and passes the Controlled Substances Act, allowing for the continued prohibition of certain controlled substances. Marijuana receives temporary Schedule I classification pending results of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse.
• 1971: Ozzy Osbourne sings pot’s praises in the Black Sabbath tune “Sweat Leaf.”
• 1972: Former Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer, chairman of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, presents a report to Congress favoring the end of marijuana prohibition. The Nixon administration ignores Shafer’s recommendation.
• 1978: “Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke” launches the duo’s series of stoner comedies.
• 1989: President George Bush appears on national television to declare “War on Drugs.”
• 1996: Proposition 215 passes in California, legalizing medical use of cannabis. It was the first state-level medical marijuana initiative enacted in the United States. Washington, D.C., and 21 more states will pass medical cannabis legislation in the coming years.
• 2008: Seth Rogen’s character in “Pineapple Express” says he’ll lose faith in humanity if marijuana is not legalized in five years.
• 2012: Colorado and Washington legalize recreational marijuana.
• 2013: A bill to end federal marijuana prohibition and a bill to respect state marijuana laws are introduced, but Congress does not approve either.
• 2014: Pennsylvania State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, introduces legislation to allow for limited medical use of cannabis.