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Some cannabis firms make 'dangerous' addiction claims

Plus, what makes Pa.'s $230 million horse-racing fund untouchable.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

February 24, 2022 | spotlightpa.org

Cannabis claims, final map, police response, fund naysayers, excess deaths, district judges, well-connected lobbyist, Amtrak trial, and no comment
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Some Pennsylvania cannabis companies are using incomplete or misleading claims to promote marijuana as a treatment for opioid addiction, potentially putting patients’ lives at greater risk, a Spotlight PA investigation has found.

Investigative reporter Ed Mahon examined more than 60 websites offering services in Pennsylvania and consulted numerous health policy experts about the validity of the claims. He found a wide range of misleading tactics, including cherry-picking and misrepresenting parts of studies, and making broad claims without citing any specific research.

The most alarming examples, according to several of the experts, were online statements that claimed research suggests medical marijuana can be a “viable substitute” for buprenorphine, one of three drugs approved by the federal government to treat opioid use disorder.

Read more about how Mahon conducted his investigation here.

Also this week, the state Supreme Court picked a new congressional map, Kate Huangpu reports. It closely resembles the current one and is unlikely to dramatically change the partisan makeup of the state’s delegation.

Want to see how your old congressional district compares to your new one? Search your address and explore using our redistricting tool.  

Finally, the Pennsylvania State Police are rebuffing a recommendation made by a state panel that would require an outside agency to investigate when troopers injure or kill someone. Gary Harki reports the agency says a change in state law is needed.
"That’s complete nonsense. If it were up to me, you wouldn’t be allowed to make claims like that."

—Epidemiologist Chelsea L. Shover on online statements promoting cannabis as a substitute for buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorder
>> THE FINAL STRETCH: Join us Thursday, March 3 at 5 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on the court challenges to Pa.'s electoral maps and how they could affect your community. Register for the event here. Have questions for our panelists? Send them to events@spotlightpa.org.
» Gov. Tom Wolf says 95% of Pennsylvanians ages 18 and older have received at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot.

» COVID-19 aid and pandemic savings are being linked to a precipitous drop in Pennsylvania bankruptcy filings, per WESA.

» Four major Pennsylvania health systems will share anonymized medical records with each other in an effort to find out why some pregnant women get sicker from COVID than others, per WITF.

» The CDC has withheld critical data on booster shots, hospitalizations and, until recently, wastewater analyses, The New York Times reports, depriving state and local health officials of important information.

» A study counts 19,776 excess deaths in Pennsylvania in the first year of the pandemic and 18,880 in the second, data that one expert says show "the indirect and downstream effects of a disaster."

» Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get a vaccine.
» Spotlight PA launching first-ever regional bureau based in State College

» Pa. election 2022: Tell Spotlight PA what coverage matters to you

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 race for governor: What we know so far

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race: What we know so far
Why is Pa.'s horse-racing fund untouchable?

With state finances tight, elected officials in Harrisburg haven’t hesitated to raid specialty funds to prop up Pennsylvania’s multibillion-dollar budget and avoid tax increases.

Over the past decade, lawmakers and the governor have negotiated budget deals with cash infusions from funds designated for conservation, highway improvements, smoking prevention and related programs, and services for older adults.

Through it all, though, one pot of money has remained untouchable, despite efforts by two governors to tap its riches: the Race Horse Development Fund.

Advocates say the money is key to maintaining an integral part of the state’s agriculture sector and supporting a web of small businesses and thousands of jobs. 

Critics counter that it is little more than an anachronistic subsidy for wealthy horse owners and breeders — many of whom don’t even live in Pennsylvania.

Established in 2004 when the state legalized gambling, the fund was designed to “positively assist” the state's horse-racing industry, support programs that foster and promote horse breeding, and “improve the living and working conditions of personnel who work and reside in and around the stable and backside areas of racetracks,” according to the legislation that created it.

The state deposits roughly $230 million in revenue from casino slots into the fund each year, representing Pennsylvania’s largest economic development expenditure, according to an assessment of such incentives by Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office. 

The money is then spent on an array of things, including health and pension benefits for people who work in the industry, including jockeys and drivers. But most of it bolsters the winning pot of money available for each horse race. The bigger the purse, the theory goes, the better the quality of horses running in a race. And with good horses comes higher attendance at tracks — and bigger bets. 

A 2017 study on the fund, conducted jointly by the IFO and the legislature, found that about half of those purses go to out-of-state horse owners, a fact cited often by critics who want those dollars to be used for higher education or other pressing issues.

For the past three years, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed siphoning money from the fund to underwrite scholarships for students who attend a state-run college or university or community college in the state. 

But as in previous years, the idea appears to be going nowhere. State Rep. Stan Saylor (R., York), who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, recently called the plan “dead on arrival.” 

So what makes this fund different — or as some say, untouchable? Legislative aides and administration staffers say it’s a mix of policy and politics. 

Lawmakers are loath to let the horse-racing industry, which has long faced waning public interest and other financial challenges, wither to the point of extinction (and take with it jobs and livelihoods). It also helps that the industry has robust lobbying and campaign arms.

Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

COURT CUTS: A once-in-a-decade review recommends eliminating at least a dozen magisterial district judge offices across Pennsylvania, a move PennLive says would save commonwealth taxpayers more than $5 million each year. A 2020 Spotlight PA and PennLive investigation found some elected magisterial district judges held court proceedings only a few days a week while collecting $93,000 annual salaries and other perks.

CONFLICT CONCERNS: Pennsylvania's former acting secretary of health, who was also a top staffer to Gov. Tom Wolf, is joining UPMC as a lobbyist. Capital-Star reports Alison Beam's new role as the vice president of government affairs for the health-care giant is raising concerns among good-government advocates wary of the revolving door between public service and the private sector.

AMTRAK TRIAL: The trial of an Amtrak engineer charged in a 2015 train crash that killed 8 people outside Philadelphia is now underway after lengthy delays. Pennsylvania's attorney general is prosecuting the case against engineer Brandon Bostian, 38, on charges including involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment. A jury will decide if the crash was a tragic mistake or criminal, WHYY reports.

NO COMMENT: What happened to three older adults at the center of abuse or neglect cases involving a Philadelphia care agency remains a mystery. Under questioning by lawmakers this week, the head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Aging refused to say whether the three were alive or dead or who should be held responsible. "I’m not at liberty to comment," Secretary of Aging Robert Torres said repeatedly.

LIFESAVING MEDICINE: Advocates for medications that help people with opioid use disorder cope with withdrawals and cravings are touting pilot program in Pittsburgh that allows rapid access to one such medication via paramedics, CNHI reports. But they're calling on state lawmakers to let the paramedics dispense larger quantities. The advocacy comes as some county courts have restricted access

» AP: Lawsuit seeks halt to court picking congressional map

» CAPITAL-STAR: War in Ukraine: What Pa. politicians have to say about it

» INQUIRER: Corman wants prosecutor to probe Mastriano campaign

» POLITICO: 3 states with shuttered nuclear plants see emissions rise

» STATEIMPACT: Mariner East pipeline project is finished

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GUESS WHAT (Case No. 135)You'll often find us on a line. When we're together, it's a crime. What are we?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Ace of Diamonds, King of Hearts, Two of Spades 
(Find last week's clue here.)

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