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Testimony before Democratic Policy Committee on Legalization

Patrick Nightingale was in Harrisburg to testify on behalf of full legalization Monday before the Democratic Policy Committee. Below is the full text of his speech.


Good morning Senator Boscola, Representative Sturla and all of the members of the Committee.  Thank you for inviting me to submit comment on the issue of cannabis reform in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  I am submitting my testimony in my capacity as the Director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.  Professionally, I am a criminal defense attorney practicing in both state and federal court and a former prosecutor from Allegheny County.

Cannabis prohibition in Pennsylvania and, indeed, the nation as a whole was based on lies, racism and a political agenda that has resulted in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans being targeted, arrested, prosecuted and convicted merely for possessing a plant.  Altoona’s own Harry Anslinger, founding commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics joined forces with William Randolph Hearst to demonize this scary new drug being brought across the border by dark skinned immigrants.  “Hemp” and “cannabis” were jettisoned in favor of “marijuana” to frighten white America.  His sensationalist testimony before Congress ascribed all manners of violent crime to “marijuana addicts” while Hearst’s newspapers screamed that cannabis was “an assassin of youth” causing unspeakable acts of violence and depravity.

President Richard Nixon argued that Controlled Substances Act was necessary to protect the nation from the evils of drug use and addiction.  But, as with Anslinger’s fabrications, the Nixon administration had another agenda.  According to Nixon’s Chief Domestic Policy Advisor John Erlichman:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities . .  could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

             One voice of reason came from former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer, a Meadville native, who was tasked by President Nixon to assess the “danger” of cannabis.  It was temporarily placed in Schedule I pending the Shafer Commission’s Report.  Much to the consternation of the President, Governor Shafer recommended regulating cannabis use in a manner similar to alcohol and to not criminalize possession.  The Commission’s report was buried and cannabis has remained Schedule I ever since.

The effect has been profound.  Even today close to 20,000 Pennsylvanians are charged with possessing cannabis every year, more than all hard drugs combined. Pennsylvanians of color are charged 4 to 5 times more frequently than their white counterparts despite similar rates of usage.  A criminal conviction for a misdemeanor “small amount” can result in loss of employment, housing, educational opportunities and even the loss of custodial rights.

It is with this background that I urge you to support cannabis reform in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

As my fellow witnesses speaking on behalf of Pennsylvania’s nascent medical cannabis industry can attest, the cannabis industry in the United States is expanding rapidly, bringing tax revenue and employment.  Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has estimated that a regulated system of cultivation and distribution could generate recurring revenue of close to 600 million annually.  As of 2019 the cannabis industry has created over 200,000 jobs and is one of the fastest growing industries in the nation.

Adult use reform must also include the ability of Pennsylvanians to cultivate cannabis for personal consumption.  We are very fortunate to have an effective medical cannabis program in Pennsylvania.  For some, however, the costs can be prohibitive.  It is heartbreaking to hear a patient say they are returning to prescription opioids because Oxycontin is covered.  Home cultivation will permit patients of limited means the ability to choose a non-toxic, natural treatment alternative.  Home cultivation is also consistent with individual liberty and basic individual rights and freedoms.  We are free to grow our own vegetables, brew our own beer and make our own wine.  Cannabis legalization should be no different.

Adult use legalization must also provide for “restorative justice” that will allow those with criminal convictions for cannabis related offenses to seek expungements and to have a path to employment in the cannabis industry.  Persons of color who have suffered disproportional must have a role moving forward as too often even minor possessory convictions have been used as a hard and fast barrier to employment.

I understand that my friends and colleagues in law enforcement have legitimate concerns about adult use reform.  They are right to express their concerns.  Fortunately, we have the ability to look at data from other states when weighing these concerns.

The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice published a report on the impact of adult use legalization in October, 2018.[1]  Relative to DUI it found:

  • DUI fatalities with active THC declined from 2016 to 2017 by close to 50%;
  • Cannabis only DUI remained steady at 7% of all DUI

While DUI fatalities with a detectable THC metabolite increased from 55 in 2013 to 139 in 2017 this is attributable to the fact that Colorado began testing for THC and THC metabolites in all DUI investigations.  Metabolites only cannot measure impairment and Carboxy THC can remain in the blood for days or weeks after consumption.  In fact, the Arizona Supreme Court found “metabolite only” DUI prosecutions to be a denial of equal protection for medical patients.

Relative to teen cannabis use, the Colorado report found:

  • The youth marijuana rate was at its lowest (9.1%) since 2007;
  • High school students reporting cannabis use was unchanged from 2005 – 2016;
  • Use by students 13 and under declined from 2015 – 2017

The “gateway drug” fallacy has often been cited and, indeed, embraced by those opposed to legalization as an accepted and well established fact.  It is anything but.  Correlation is not causation.  According to addictions professionals most who use and abuse controlled substances started with alcohol and tobacco use, but no one suggests that these substances act as a “gateway”.  Cannabis is the most widely used “illicit” drug in the world.  Were there any substance to the “gateway drug” myth we would expect to see a corresponding increase in hard drug use.  However, according to a 2014 report from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health the vast majority of cannabis consumers do not move on to other harder drugs.[2]

It is time to put the ruinous and racist era of cannabis prohibition behind us.  It is time to admit that prohibition was a deeply flawed policy that has caused incalculable harm, especially to persons and communities of color.  I urge you to give your full support to both decriminalization, which will shield 20,000 Pennsylvanians annually from the criminal justice system, and full adult use legalization which will usher in a new era of prosperity and liberty for all

Thank you for this opportunity to be heard.

Patrick K. Nightingale, Esquire



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Patrick NightingaleTestimony before Democratic Policy Committee on Legalization