Commentary

Cannabis Legalization: Pa. should lead, not follow | Opinion

The illegality of cannabis goes far beyond in its harm to our community. A cannabis conviction can negate one’s ability to vote, serve in our Armed Forces, or live in public housing

In this November 2019 photo, patrons smoke marijuana at a state-licensed but federally illegal marijuana establishment in Los Angeles.(AP Photo/Richard Vogel/The Conversation)

By Jeffrey Riedy

I’m often asked “why legalize cannabis?” And on the heels of state Sen. Mike Regan’s, R-York, initial legalization hearing on Monday before the Senate Law & Justice Committee, it might be important to discuss a few of those points.

While hundreds of thousands of patients legally consume legal medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, purchased at state-licensed facilities, more than twenty thousand are annually charged with cannabis possession statewide. Legalization would end that statistic.

The illegality of cannabis goes far beyond in its harm to our community. A cannabis conviction can negate one’s ability to vote, serve in our Armed Forces, or live in public housing.

A simple cannabis possession can be the grounds for ending child custody or visitation, and can be a scarlet letter in the job market, a checkbox that many would like to avoid. And yet, alcohol, which, unlike cannabis, accounts for a large percentage of highway fatalities, is deemed acceptable in our society. Cannabis consumers deserve this same consideration and respect, from the workplace to family court. Legalizing cannabis might begin to correct these inequities.

Nationwide cannabis is available in a majority of states as a “medicine”, while others have legalized it for medicinal purposes and adult-use. In Pennsylvania, we have already legalized cannabis through our Medical Marijuana program. We have established market practices, and welcomed a robust cannabis industry. However, participating in our medical program requires qualifying medical conditions, and an outpouring of cash for overpriced products.

Pa. Senate committee takes up legalizing adult-use cannabis in initial legislative hearing

Regulation and the guarantee of a safe product are the outcome of legalization, whether it be the medical market or if you choose to consume as an adult, as we are afforded with alcohol. With more than half a million participants, our Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis program provides assurances of a safer product than what is available on the street. Under current prohibition, the same cannot be said for the illicit market.

A fair-priced legal adult-use market will take consumers out of harm’s way, eliminating contact with criminals. Legalizing cannabis will remove the “label” attached to cannabis consumers, while normalizing cannabis. A cannabis consumer should face no more scrutiny than any adult who consumes alcohol or takes prescribed medications.

However, that is currently not the case, especially at the workplace. I would hope that with the passage of legalization, that legislators, law enforcement, and employers would become better informed, and that the cannabis consumer will no longer face that discrimination.

The benefits of cannabis legalization go beyond the consumer, as legislators would anxiously be able to tax sales and production. Jobs would be created as a new marketplace develops, alongside our existing legal Medical program. Whether we’re talking legal medical cannabis or cannabis purchased through the illicit market for adult-use, it is the SAME plant, so we already have experience with handling this product “legally”.

There will always be the nay-saying “Reefer Madness” detractor, using the gateway theory to silence the legalization discussion. I would argue that the gateway theory is not fact, and in reality the only connection is the illicit dealer hustling other drugs, and not the effects of cannabis consumption.

Legalizing cannabis, and removing the consumer from that landscape would eliminate contact with the street and those other dangerous substances. At the end of Alcohol Prohibition, America embraced the legalization of a regulated alcohol market, and slowly the bootleggers were all but silenced. The same is likely to happen with the introduction of a regulated, legal cannabis marketplace for adults.

The discussion finally began in Harrisburg on Monday. I am guessing that our lawmakers recognize that New York and New Jersey have joined the national trend of states passing cannabis legalization, and if Pennsylvania does not start the conversation NOW, we will not only watch tax dollars cross the border, as consumers seek a legal market, but we will be a blockade of cannabis prohibition, surrounded by a wave of legalization across New England, stretching south into Virginia.

As Warren County District Attorney Robert Greene  said during Monday’s Senate Law & Justice Committee meeting,  (regarding cannabis legalization), “we should lead, rather than follow”.

In the end, nationwide legalization is inevitable. Today’s conversations will determine whether Pennsylvania lawmakers want to be leaders or followers.

Three years ago, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s Legalization Listening Tour visited each of Pennsylvanian’s 67 counties, asking for comment on cannabis legalization. After amassing comments from the tour stops and through the State website, it was determined that 70% of Pennsylvanians favor legalization, echoing National polls.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any other topic viewed so favorably by the American people. So, it would only make sense that if our legislators work “for their constituents“, that they would be advised to read the tea leaves, pay attention to the people’s opinion, and pass smart legislation to regulate cannabis.

Finally, it should not be overlooked that the prohibition of cannabis, whether it be at the hand of Harold Anslinger in the 1930s or Nixon’s creation of the DEA’s drug-scheduling in the 70s, was never based on any factual harms, but was instead a tool of oppression, targeting minorities, immigrants, and hippies. Cannabis has NEVER been dangerous, though one cannot say the same for its opposition.

Jeffrey Riedy is the executive director of Lehigh Valley NORML. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.

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