A Tale of Two Committees: Experts Discuss Harms of Marijuana Legalization

Apr 13, 2022 | 0 comments

Critical experts who were shut out of previous hearings on legalizing marijuana for recreational use testified during Tuesday’s PA Senate Aging and Youth Committee.

On Tuesday, April 12th, one PA Senate committee held a hearing with health and safety professionals to discuss the real harms and problems with commercializing the sale of marijuana for recreational use; presenting the side of this debate that was blocked by a different PA Senate committee from testifying.


Last February, Senator Mike Regan (R-Cumberland) announced that the PA Senate Law and Justice Committee would hold a set of three hearings on marijuana legalization:

  • The first of these hearings focused on law enforcement. Scott Bohn with the PA Chiefs of Police Association naturally thought his organization would be involved. The committee denied his request to testify. “No professional law enforcement associations were invited nor were written briefs to the Committee permitted,” stated Bohn.
  • The second of Sen. Regan’s hearings, held on February 28th, was set to focus on legalization in other states. Not only did no government official from another state testify but the panels were stacked by the marijuana industry, who called for no potency limits, no local opt-outs and to move as fast as possible; calls that put private profits ahead of public safety.
  • Ahead of the final hearing on March 14th, the committee’s director informed many who inquired to testify that no advocacy groups would be invited to testify. It was then a shock to see the hearing open with a pro-marijuana advocacy group – one that made a significant campaign contribution to Sen. Regan a week after his announcement in favor of marijuana legalization for recreational use – and then concluded with a pro-marijuana advocacy group – one that had actually already testified in the second hearing.

These three previous hearings were stacked with marijuana industry reps, with not one individual or advocacy group allowed to testify on the problems to consider with a bill to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Why have a public hearing in the first place if you’re not inviting a variety of experts to help dialogue on the pros and cons of a given issue?

While these three biased hearings were a disservice to Pennsylvania taxpayers, what’s encouraging is Senator Judy Ward (R-Blair), the chair of the Senate Aging and Youth Committee, decided to hold a hearing in her committee that welcomed testimony from a variety of experts, several of whom were shut out from the Law & Justice Committee hearings.

Harms with Marijuana 

Instead of the marijuana industry dominating the agenda, this latest hearing was a representation of health and safety organizations that had no conflict of interest in directly profiting from legalizing the commercial sale of marijuana. 

Here are highlights from testimony provided by some of the expert panelists:

  • Kate Appleman is the Senior Clinical Director of Men’s Services at Caron Treatment Centers. “I have been a clinician at Caron treating individuals struggling with substance use disorder and their families for more than 17 years. I am also the mother of four children, the oldest of whom are 19 and 12. I understand firsthand the challenge cannabis presents to today’s youth, their parents, their teachers and our communities…As a clinician who treats addiction, I am concerned. As a parent, I am scared and disappointed.” Appleman’s testimony described several reasons why Caron is opposed to the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. “At Caron, where patients who experienced THC-induced psychosis was once rare, it is now common among patients being referred….The Marijuana Industry has put forth products that are under-researched and largely unregulated, leading to missteps that are putting our youth at risk.” She also added several suggestions for any marijuana use, including a restriction by anyone under the age of 25 in order to prevent damage to the developing brain. “We need to put safety nets in place to protect our youth.”
  • Dr. Aaron Weiner, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and addictions specialist from Chicago, shared concerns. “Commercializing marijuana is an overwhelmingly negative policy change for youth drug use rates. In general, effective drug policy discourages drug use – commercializing marijuana does exactly the opposite, creating an industry that is financially incentivized to addict as many new users as possible.” Dr. Weiner also shares strong concerns with the timing of this legislative push, as the harms with mental illness are increasing. “These implications are numerous and concerning, and this possible policy change is also coming at the worst possible time: we are in the middle of a national emergency regarding youth mental health, with the CDC recently releasing a report finding that 40% of high-school students endorsed depression and 20% contemplated suicide over the past year.”
  • Former Superior Court Judge Cheryl Allen served for seventeen years in juvenile and criminal courts, interacting with thousands of families whose lives were wrecked by drug addiction. She’s seen first-hand the harm marijuana use has caused. “People can and do become addicted to marijuana, especially young people.” Judge Allen’s experiences play a significant role in her opposition to the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. “No amount of tax revenue is worth sacrificing the safety and well-being of our citizens, especially our youth.” She also spoke out about conflating criminal justice reform with the harm of legalizing marijuana for recreational use. “Criminal justice reform as well as inequities in arrests, charging, prosecution, sentencing and incarceration can be accomplished without promoting policies which are guaranteed to lead to more drug addiction crime and harm to our communities, especially our young people. In court, when someone is entering a guilty plea on anything, part of the plea colloquy is to make sure that they are doing so completely voluntarily and not under the influence of anything. The same should be true in life. We should not be legalizing any mind-altering chemical for recreational use.”
  • Luke Niforatos is the Executive Vice President for the national non-profit organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “As a Coloradan and a dad, I can tell you the toll of legalized marijuana has been significant, particularly on children and young adults. Recreational marijuana legalization is bad policy and should be opposed in Pennsylvania.” Niforatos gave significant examples of documented harms from states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. “The long-term harms of legalization on the youth population cannot be minimized…When marijuana is legalized, youth use generally increases.”

You can watch the full hearing here.

Retracted Conclusion

Dr. D. Mark Anderson, a professor at Montana State University, was one of the panelists, invited by the committee minority chair Sen. Maria Collett, who gave views in support of making this harmful and addictive drug legalized for recreational use. 

A focus of his testimony was on a study he authored that was published by JAMA Network Open that reviewed various papers: “My testimony is largely based on that review.” His study’s conclusion was to claim that teen use has decreased as a result of marijuana legalization.

The glaring problem is this study was actually recently retracted and replaced by JAMA on March 8, 2022. The errors found in this study omitted the claim that marijuana laws did not cause a decrease in teen use. There were “no significant associations between enactment of recreational marijuana laws or medical marijuana laws and marijuana use among high school students. These findings differ from the previous report by Anderson that had reported estimates based on unweighted pooled national and state data based on an analytic approach not recommended by the YRBS.”

Dr. Anderson did not make it known to the committee that his study had been retracted and replaced.

Why A Healthy Debate is Necessary

This latest hearing was necessary because we need real debate on marijuana policy. It’s a problem when Gov. Tom Wolf publicly claims he’s not sure “how anyone would see [marijuana] as something that is addictive.” This type of naivete to the realities of marijuana use is frankly insulting to the many families who have faced those realities.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) identifies one in ten adult marijuana users will become addicted; this ratio rises to one in six if they start as a minor. “Marijuana is an addictive drug,” states the American Addiction Centers.

Ironically, Senator Regan penned an op-ed last year calling for Gov. Wolf to follow CDC guidelines in easing mask restrictions. “Will our Governor…listen to the health professionals? If this is good enough for the CDC, it should be good enough for Governor Wolf and the people of Pennsylvania.”

It’s all the more troubling that Sen. Regan continues to push for marijuana legalization, calling for more access to “a safe product” despite CDC warnings like, “using marijuana at any age can lead to negative health consequences.” While science is still trying to fully understand the impacts of today’s high potency marijuana, the CDC knows, “marijuana use may have a wide range of effects on the brain and body.”

Sen. Regan – and Gov. Wolf and other pro-marijuana politicians, will you listen to the health professionals? All of our state legislators – and the people of Pennsylvania – need to listen to the testimony from the health and safety professionals in this week’s hearing. We’d all be better off as a result.