Adam Cottle considers himself an activist.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania alleges that he is a criminal.
The drug was marijuana.
Cottle, 31, doesn’t dispute his possession and use of marijuana, which led to additional charges after he was arrested in March on the warrant. He does dispute that either should be a crime.
“I’m not pleading guilty to any drug charge,” the Luzerne resident said last week. “I’m taking it all the way to a jury trial.”
A longtime advocate for the legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana, Cottle is a U.S. Air Force veteran who said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he has found that marijuana “keeps him balanced.”
PTSD is one of the 17 “serious medical conditions” for which medical marijuana may be recommended in Pennsylvania. The product Cottle allegedly possessed did not come through the medical cannabis program signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016, but he counters that everything he had could have been purchased for medicinal use, and he wants to take that argument to open court.
“I was using it medicinally at the time, so that’s how I feel,” Cottle said.
But he also wants his trial to help spotlight the battle for legalizing recreational use in Pennsylvania.
A growing trend
Recreational legalization may prove an uphill battle, but it’s not a pipe dream, either.
Already, nine states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational possession, while 12 more states have decriminalized it, typically for small amounts — as have some cities around the country, including here in Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie, Harrisburg, York, State College, Allentown and Bethlehem.
Wilkes-Barre City Council voted in 2016 to downgrade possession of drug paraphernalia from a misdemeanor to a summary offense, subject to the arresting officer’s discretion. Otherwise, the status quo remains.
In New York, one of those states which has decriminalized, the health department last week announced it would recommend legalizing recreational marijuana as the agency wraps up work on a study commissioned earlier this year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“The report is being finalized, but it concludes the pros of a regulated program outweigh the cons,” New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said Monday.
“The report also concludes that should a regulated program be implemented, special consideration will need to be given to a number of factors including the age of who can purchase marijuana, who can grow and distribute it, the location of dispensaries, and at what rate the product would be taxed,” Zucker added.
In Pennsylvania, the state department of health had considerably less to say when contacted by the Times Leader last week in the wake of Zucker’s announcement.
“Recreational marijuana is not a health issue, so the Department of Health has no comment or role in the possibility of legalization,” department spokesman Nate Wardle said Wednesday.
Recreational marijuana advocates here do have one very vocal ally in Harrisburg, however: Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
In March 2017, DePasquale announced that he favored legalization because it could generate $200 million in annual revenue for the cash-strapped state’s general fund, as well as reducing the costs and stigma associated with criminal prosecution of marijuana-related crimes.
“Decriminalization saves millions of dollars spent yearly on marijuana prosecutions. Decriminalization also has human benefits by reducing the loss of income and other social, personal and emotional impacts on those arrested for simply possessing a small amount of marijuana,” DePasquale said last week.
Les Stark, executive director of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition, believes it’s time for Pennsylvania to consider full legalization of marijuana, but he also knows that not everyone agrees.
Proposed decriminalization legislation has made only limited progress, Stark said, with one bill making it to the judiciary committee, where it languished.
“It’s going to be tough in Pennsylvania,” said Stark, adding that while there is widespread support from residents, lawmakers in Harrisburg haven’t been as hungry for the issue.
“There appears to be little appetite (for full legalization) in Harrisburg,” he said.
Perhaps with good reason: Regardless of what Harrisburg or any state legislature decides, marijuana use remains illegal under federal law, which lists it as a Schedule I drug.
Drugs, substances, and certain chemicals used to make drugs are classified into five distinct categories or schedules depending upon the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Schedule I is “defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” the DEA states.
That means marijuana is in the same category as heroin and peyote, while cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone and fentanyl are in Schedule II, for example.
And that means Pennsylvania and other states which have approved medical marijuana programs are endorsing a substance the federal government does not recognize as having a medicinal use.
“Why is marijuana Schedule I and fentanyl, that’s killing everyone, is Schedule II,” Cottle asked. “That shows you that the system needs to be fixed.”
Until and unless the system is “fixed,” in Cottle’s view, any use remains illegal as far as Washington is concerned, which means producers and users in those states which have legalized recreational use could still be subject to prosecution.
The U.S. Justice Department, under the Obama administration, made pursuing marijuana charges a low priority. Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been and remains an outspoken opponent of marijuana use, though a widespread crackdown he threatened on taking office has yet to truly materialize.
Partly this may have to do with the fact that there is growing public support for full legalization — or at the very least broad tolerance in most states.
Also, Sessions’ view seems to conflict with recent statements by his boss.
President Donald Trump earlier this month signalled that he’s inclined to support a bipartisan effort in Congress to ease the U.S. ban on marijuana — though that also seems to conflict with some of Trump’s own previous remarks on the subject.
While America watches and waits, Cottle is waiting for his case to work its way through the Luzerne County Court system, with a disposition hearing set for July 6, he said last week.
“I have a good background. I’m a college-educated veteran, honorably discharged. If I can go in front of a jury and then they throw it out, after me throwing a finger to the police, well then anyone can do the same thing,” Cottle said.
He came to a Times Leader interview wearing marijuana-themed gear, as well as a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections baseball hat. Cottle said he doesn’t fear prison, and has no animosity toward the justice system.
“I want to fight for other people’s rights,” he said.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of an occasional series on the push for recreational marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania. It kicked off with four days of coverage that looked at the regulatory, financial, legal and health issues under discussion in Harrisburg and elsewhere.