The words "marijuana" and "cannabis" can conjure up images of drug addicts and criminal behavior.
That's why the eight people attending a seminar about the drug at the Levittown branch of the Bucks County Public Library said they didn't want to reveal their names to the newspaper.
But Saturday's two-hour seminar by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, was about the medical uses of marijuana as well as its history in the U.S. and other countries. Several people threw curious glances into the meeting room but did not enter.
Those who gathered wanted to learn more about efforts in Pennsylvania to legalize the drug for medical use. Just about everyone in the room knew someone with an illness who either uses marijuana illegally to find relief or who can't find relief using current treatments.
"It's so stigmatized. But getting sick would change your mind overnight," said one man, who didn't want his name used. "It's like prohibition of alcohol. That didn't work, and alcohol is more deadly."
A woman and her son came to the meeting from Lancaster because they know people who they believe would benefit from medical marijuana use. One is an AIDS patient and another suffers detrimental side-effects from the drugs he takes for manic-depression.
"When you buy marijuana illegally, you don't know what you're getting," the woman said.
This year, state Rep. Mark Cohen and six co-sponsors introduced House Bill 1393 to make the medical use of the marijuana legal. If passed, the Barry Busch Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act of 2009 would allow patients who get clearance from their doctors and the state to possess and cultivate cannabis for therapeutic purposes. The measure also seeks to allow the state-licensed distribution and sale of medical marijuana by authorized "compassion centers."
Currently, 13 other states have medical marijuana laws: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
"This year has seen the most movement toward the end of prohibition," said Chris Goldstein, a spokesperson for NORML. He's on the board of directors for the New Jersey chapter of the national organization, founded in 1970. New Jersey is also considering a medical marijuana bill.
By legalizing the drug, patients would be ensured of the highest quality and wouldn't have to worry about contaminants, fungus or toxic substances on the marijuana, said Goldstein.
NORML reports that something like 14 million people use marijuana regularly, according to federal government surveys.
A March 2001 Pew Research Center poll reported that 73 percent of Americans support making marijuana legally available for doctors to prescribe. In a 2004 AARP poll, 72 percent of respondents said they agree that "Adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if a physician recommends it."
The National Institutes of Health and The National Institutes of Drug Abuse are funding research into medical marijuana applications, Goldstein said.
Studies and actual use have proven effective in treating symptoms and treatment side-effects of serious illnesses such as AIDS, cancer and neurological disorders including Lou Gehrig's Disease and multiple sclerosis. Details about these studies as well as endorsements by health organizations and state programs are posted on NORML's Web site, at norml.org.
"This is not some sort of underground issue. It's a mainstream topic," said Goldstein.
The organization advocates responsible use of the drug. It's active in trying to get marijuana off the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's Schedule I drug classification, which defines a drug as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
However, marijuana has been used in the United States and around the world for generations, said Goldstein. Until the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937, the substance was legal in this country, and doctors used it to relieve a variety of ailments, he said.
Derek Rosenzweig, co-chairman of the Philadelphia chapter of NORML, is looking forward to the passage of House Bill 1393, which has been referred to the House Committee on Health and Human Services.
"We've talked to almost every member of the committee. We're hoping this bill gets passed in two years," said Rosenzweig. He and Goldstein are also members of Pennsylvanians For Medical Marijuana.
To people with debilitating diseases or chronic pain, marijuana can be the only agent of relief, Rosenzweig said.
He is a passionate advocate and joined NORML after his father was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome, a chronic pain condition.
"It's 24-7 pain," said Rosenzweig's mother, Faith Rosenzweig of Bristol Township. She petitions legislators to consider the advantages of marijuana as medicine.
By MANASEE WAGH