As legal pot efforts take hold across the country, opponents organize in Pennsylvania

By: - April 22, 2019 8:53 am

On a gray Friday in early April, as Lt. Gov John Fetterman prepared to make two weekend stops on his recreational marijuana listening tour, dozens of conservatives gathered in suburban Harrisburg to learn about the risks of legalizing cannabis.

Bills that would legalize recreational marijuana for all adults in Pennsylvania are presumed to be dead on arrival in the state House and the Senate, where one Republican leader called the idea “reckless and irresponsible.”

But that’s no comfort to Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a conservative religious liberties organization based in Harrisburg.

Addressing a crowd at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, an annual gathering of conservatives, earlier this month, Geer warned marijuana opponents not to get complacent in the face of a fast-moving legalization movement.

“A lot of people assume this is not going to pass, but we don’t think we can sit on the sidelines for this,” Geer told the audience in the Radisson Hotel in East Pennsboro Township on April 5. “This is going to take a grassroots effort, and we need help building a broad coalition.”

The pro-cannabis movement has ballooned in recent years as groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the Marijuana Policy Project form grassroots chapters in support of legalization. The cannabis industry entered 2019 with its largest-ever cadre of lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, however, there remains “almost no organized opposition” to marijuana legalization, according to Jonathan Caulkins, a policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

That’s led some opponents to feel like they’re being drowned out in the debate in Pennsylvania.

“At this stage in Pennsylvania, only one side is being heard,” Geer told the Capital-Star. “We need to get out ahead of it.”

Republican leaders accused Gov. Tom Wolf of pulling an about-face on marijuana policies in December 2018, when, fresh off a reelection victory, he said that Pennsylvania should take a “serious and honest look” at legalization. In January, Wolf announced that Fetterman would embark on a 67-county listening tour to hear Pennsylvanians’ opinions on the issue.

Those developments may not have any immediate impact on marijuana policy in Pennsylvania, even though they came amidst record-high public support for legalization.

But they were enough to catch the attention of the nation’s leading anti-marijuana group — Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, a nonprofit founded in 2013 by a group of Washington, D.C. policy wonks and Colorado-based health professionals.

SAM has affiliates today in 26 states, but not in Pennsylvania. In fact, the organization barely had a presence in the state before the end of last year.

“Things shifted very quickly,” said SAM lobbyist Luke Niforatos. “We’re not throwing the whole kitchen sink at Pennsylvania right now, but we are getting our organization in place and paying very careful attention. We see it as a top-tier fight next session, maybe.”

Niforatos said that SAM will start “a more earnest outreach effort” in Pennsylvania in the next two months as they prepare to keep legalization at bay. Right now, the group is building a coalition that Niforatos said includes physicians and addiction treatment professionals.

It will also include family-values Republicans like Geer, and some of the like-minded conservatives who heard him and Niforatos speak at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference earlier this month.

But one reason the opposition movement has been slow to coalesce is that attitudes toward cannabis don’t divide neatly along party lines.

A libertarian strain in the Republican party has put some of its members in the legalization camp, even as others, like Geer, stand in staunch opposition.

And while Democratic lawmakers have been the ones to introduce bills to end prohibition, leaders in their party have been slow to offer vocal support or sign on as co-sponsors. Even Wolf, for most of his first term, said Pennsylvania wasn’t ready to discuss full legalization.

The bipartisan convergence is evident at SAM, whose founders include a former Democratic congressman and a former official in the Obama administration. Abu Edwards, SAM’s director of state affairs, worked on Democrat Katie McGinty’s unsuccessful campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., in 2016, and Democrat David Wecht’s winning campaign for Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in 2015.

Edwards said the organization’s chief priority in Pennsylvania is educating lawmakers about the potential harms of marijuana, and warning them of troubling public health trends in states that have legalized the drug.

They’re also out to bust what SAM calls the “false dichotomy” — the idea that legalization is a just reparation for the war on drugs, which made marijuana possession a leading cause of arrest and incarceration in the U.S. for decades. Edwards and others say it’s possible to reform a punitive criminal justice system without paving the way for an avaricious commercial weed industry.

“We’re saying to lawmakers, ‘This is not the Pennsylvania way,” said Edwards. “We need to separate real social justice from the legalization of a recreational drug.”

The next big tobacco?

Those who oppose marijuana legalization say that the science on the subject is on their side.

They point to studies, published in leading medical journals, that find associations between cannabis use and schizophrenia, as well as other forms of psychosis.

They say there’s no evidence that marijuana is effective at reducing pain, and that many of the drug’s touted health benefits —  such as its capacity to treat epilepsy, anxiety, or depression — remain hazy and inconclusive.

Opponents also argue that marijuana users have reported more frequent use in recent years as attitudes toward the drug have become more permissive. They warn that legalization will allow the marijuana industry to become the next Big Tobacco, peddling addictive products to customers with no regard for their health or safety.

Caulkins, the drug policy researcher, says the Big Tobacco analogy has merit. While cannabis is nowhere near as menacing as cigarettes, he said, the industry’s profits depend on customers’ frequent use of a potentially addictive product — which, in the case of cannabis, many mistakenly think is benign.

As opponents rev up their efforts in Pennsylvania, they’ll also have to pour water on another oft-cited reasons for marijuana legalization: that it will mitigate the opioid epidemic.

That’s an argument that’s been made by Fetterman, who said last year that Pennsylvania should go “full Colorado” in its pursuit of cannabis legalization.

“It’s a simple solution to the devastation I have seen first-hand of the opioid crisis and the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration on communities of color,” Fetterman said of legal cannabis, when he accepted an endorsement from the political arm of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The idea that marijuana can cure or at least reduce opioid abuse is tantalizing to politicians, Caulkins said, but it’s also not as simple as either side makes it out to be.

“Opponents are wrong to deny there’s evidence, and proponents are wrong to say it’s been demonstrated,” Caulkins said. “It’s suggestive … but not decisive.”

While opioid prescriptions in Colorado decreased between 2012 and 2016, opioid-related overdose deaths and infant abstinence syndrome have both increased.

But in Colorado and elsewhere, it’s not clear if cannabis has any causal relationship on opioid addiction. And even if it did offer a panacea, Caulkins said, that’s still not a compelling reason to legalize it for general use.

“Legalizing it in a way that allows a for-profit industry to make it available for all forms of use is very different than letting the medical community provide it within a drug treatment setting,” Caulkins said. In Pennsylvania, people with opioid use disorder are eligible for medical marijuana if other treatments have failed.

“A lot of people want to legalize cannabis for their own reasons,” Caulkins continued, “but now there’s this additional high profile argument that makes it seem like compassionate response to an urgent need. So it’s co-opted.”

In an interview with the Capital-Star, Fetterman declined to comment on that research or on his past statements about cannabis and opioids. He said he’s not advocating for policy while he continues the statewide listening tour.

But he did report that decriminalization policies, which would reduce or eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana possession, seem to have near unanimous support among people in the 40-plus counties he’s visited so far.

That’s not surprising to the advocates at SAM, who endorse decriminalization. And in the end, that’s where they hope states like Pennsylvania will land: with marijuana policies that continue criminal justice reform without opening the door to for-profit commercialization.

“[Pennsylvania] should be leading this country with real, robust decriminalization and social justice and criminal justice reform, not legalizing a recreational drug,” Edwards said.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.