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Despite Popularity, Cannabis Inequities Remain Unaddressed

Across eye-catching billboards and pop-up signs peppered along the busy sidewalks of Lawrenceville, more and more advertisements are sounding a call for a product with a storied and long-debated history: cannabis. Since Pennsylvania’s legalization of medical marijuana in 2016, the numbers of patients seeking relief through medical marijuana treatment has expanded exponentially: growers that planned on 50,000 patients in the first year were stunned when more than 100,000 people signed up. Now, according to Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program’s latest report, more than one million patient certifications have been issued to individuals seeking marijuana for relief from serious medical conditions, and that number continues to rise across the state.

For many, medical marijuana offers a helpful relief for symptoms of anxiety and depression. In fact, in 2021, anxiety disorders were a factor in 60% of the medical cards issued that year. Other qualifying conditions range from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to Crohn’s Disease, to chemotherapy side effects and much more.

Patients are able to seek out medical marijuana treatment for health conditions by registering on the Pennsylvania Department of Health website, visiting an approved doctor for certification and a one-time payment of $50 for a medical marijuana ID card. From there, it’s only a matter of locating the nearest medical dispensaries. Patients are able to purchase up to a 90-day supply at one time, as prescribed by the approving physician.

The soaring popularity of medical marijuana has also made way for a new category of cannabis-related products in a less potent, over-the-counter form. Thanks to the 2018 Pennsylvania Farm Bill, which legalized hemp and all hemp products, types of cannabis-derivatives called Delta-8, Delta-9, and Delta-10 are sold widely across Pennsylvania. Hemp-derived oils, CBD-infused gummies, Delta-9 potato chips and more can now be found at boutique-style cannabis stores and offer similar effects to medical marijuana: pain relief, anti-inflammatory and appetite-stimulating benefits. These offerings are not to be confused with the marijuana products available at medical dispensaries. The biggest difference between the Delta products and those regulated in medical dispensaries is the presence of the compound Tetrahydrocannabinol—better known as THC. In Pennsylvania, a product containing more than 0.3% Delta-9 THC is classified as “marijuana,” while products below that threshold amount of THC can be sold legally. In 2023, access to Delta products is at an all-time high, as they can be found and purchased at just about every smoke shop in the state.

As cannabis products continue to integrate their way into popular consumption, an underbelly of inequity remains largely unaddressed. Marijuana has historically been classed as a Schedule 1 substance under federal law—a drug classification that contains others such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, LSD and more. This means that any arrests pertaining to illegally purchased marijuana are treated as a criminal offense throughout most of the state. Significantly, these arrests disproportionately target people of color, although both Black and white individuals use marijuana at similar rates. For the past 20 years Black individuals have remained nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana, according to the ACLU.

One effort to address this inequity has been to decriminalize marijuana, therefore significantly decreasing the severity and occasion for arrests. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, 66% of Pennsylvanians support recreational legalization of marijuana. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia each decriminalized marijuana city-wide in 2016 and 2014 respectively, leading to a downward trend in arrest rates for both Black adults and adolescents. However, the state of Pennsylvania did not decriminalize marijuana possession before legalizing medical use, and as a result, racial disparities in marijuana arrests persist. In 2021, Black adults in Pennsylvania were 4.7 times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for marijuana possession. Pittsburgh is no exception: according to WESA, of the 139 arrests in 2020 where marijuana possession was the only charge, nearly 90% of those charged were Black.

It’s clear that there is a stark imbalance in our treatment of marijuana. As public opinion shifts in favor of full legalization, the imperative need to address and correct the racial inequities of marijuana must remain central to legalization efforts if they are to have the greatest impact on our community. It’s possible a piece of that goal may be taking shape: just this past July, five Pennsylvania senators introduced a bipartisan bill to legalize the drug for recreational, adult use and in it included a stipulation of expunging nonviolent marijuana offenses. Although small, it is a step in the right direction towards a safer, more equitable future of marijuana.

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