Let Pennsylvanians decide: Put marijuana legalization on the ballot | Opinion

The Capitol building in Harrisburg is lit in green to celebrate medical marijuana's passage. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

By Jim Brewster

Let all citizens have their say on legalizing marijuana.

At our fingertips is a potential $581 million generated annually from legalized marijuana that could be used to establish substance abuse treatment facilities to help stem the deadly tide of drug overdoses and deaths across our state.

Nationwide, 130 people die from drug overdoses every day.

The funding would also be significant enough for Pennsylvania to embark on aggressive in-patient treatment programs and build new facilities to help those who are struggling with mental health issues. This not only would save individuals and families, it would also help prevent random mass shootings and other tragedies.

The state Auditor General estimates legalizing marijuana would yield at least $580 million in tax revenue. Deploying that level of funding to treat drug abuse and mental health would save thousands of lives and relieve untold suffering.

Yet, before we can dedicate that money to help those in need, the General Assembly must first act to legalize marijuana. To make informed judgements, not only will citizens have to be educated, but lawmakers will have to reorder their thinking.

Putting a question on the ballot and having voters cast votes for or against legalization can serve as a tool to inform.

It is appropriate that citizens have an avenue to express their opinion. Legalizing marijuana is a big step and extraordinary action should be taken to ensure that the issue is fully vetted. The results of an informational referendum would give lawmakers a real sense of the level of public support. It would also help show regional differences and interpret citizen preferences.

Some argue that it is time that Pennsylvania add its name to the list of the other states that have legalized marijuana. Others have pumped the brakes, arguing that marijuana is a gateway drug and that other drug problems would be exacerbated by legalization.

Admittedly, there are many legislative and legal hurdles ahead before the issue can be placed on the ballot. Perhaps the most substantial is the federal government’s designation of marijuana as a controlled substance and that its use, sale or distribution remains illegal.

Since the 1930s the federal government’s view has been clear and unchanged regardless of how many states have legalized medical or recreational marijuana.

Ignoring federal law is not for the faint of heart. However, other states have already ventured down this path without retribution.

Before that high federal hurdle is cleared, there undoubtably will be a legislative challenge to putting the question on the ballot and letting citizens decide. Past efforts to authorize a referendum were derailed by legislative opponents and courts who claimed that referendums were an unconstitutional delegation of power. Those were different days with different facts and circumstances.

This latter issue can be addressed by the nature and design of the ballot question itself. Put in its proper context, a question put before the voters simply asking their views for informational purposes is not an official action; rather, it is an information gathering tool.

The first step toward legalization was taken when Pennsylvania approved the use of medical marijuana. The next issue is to ascertain if Pennsylvania is willing to take the leap and legalize marijuana. Finally, we must determine how best to utilize tax proceeds.

The use of a ballot question to better understand how legalizing marijuana is viewed by a broader swath of Pennsylvanians would provide invaluable guidance as the Legislature takes up this issue.

State Sen. Jim Brewster, a Democrat, represents the 45th Senate District, which includes parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. He writes from Harrisburg. 


  1. Those who believe in limited government, personal responsibility, free markets, and individual liberty should embrace the ending of this irrational, un-American, fraudulently enacted cannabis prohibition. It should be the cornerstone of current GOP policy.

    Federal studies show about half of the U.S. population has tried cannabis, at least 15% use it regularly, over 80% of high school seniors have reported cannabis “easy to get” for decades. This prohibition, like alcohol prohibition has had little of its intended effect. In many cases cannabis prohibition makes cannabis usage problematic where it would not have been otherwise, be it light, moderate, or heavy usage. For the most part, cannabis prohibition only successfully prohibits effective regulation.

    A few issues created by prohibition: there are no quality controls to reduce contaminants (harmful pesticides, molds, fungus, other drugs), there is no practical way to prevent regular underage sales, billions in tax revenue are lost which can be used for all substance abuse treatment, underground markets for all drugs are empowered as a far more popular substance is placed within them expanding their reach and increasing their profits, criminal records make pursuing many decent careers difficult, police and court resources are unnecessarily tied up by pursuing and prosecuting victimless ‘crimes’, public mistrust and disrespect for our legal system, police, and government is increased, which is devastating our country.

    Prohibition is also very expensive, though, a cash cow for a number of powerful groups such as those related to law enforcement and the prison industry. These organizations have powerful lobbies and influence that perpetuate a failed drug policy through ignorance, fear, disinformation and misinformation. This ensures an endless supply of lucrative contracts, grants and subsidies from the government and its taxpayers to support their salaries, tools of the trade, ‘correctional’ services, and other expenses. Cash, property and other assets from civil forfeiture laws also significantly fatten their coffers while often violating civil rights.

    America was built on the principles of freedom and liberty. In some cases there are extreme circumstances that warrant intervention with criminal law. In the case of mind-altering drugs we have already set this precedent with alcohol. Cannabis is less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and especially to others. If we are to have justice, then the penalties for using, possessing and selling cannabis should be no worse than those of alcohol.

    A vote to end cannabis prohibition is a vote to condemn a costly prohibition that causes more harm than it prevents.

  2. I am pretty sympathetic to legalization but the fact that a state senator is calling for something that does not exist in PA and is unconstitutional is scary. He either needs a class in Pennsylvania constitutional law or should relinquish his position. Before you decide the ends justify the means, just ask what else he might want to unilaterally change or disregard in the constitution or government structure?

    • You are correct that Pennsylvania does not have initiative and referendum – which is what I think you’re referring to here.
      But I believe it’s allowable to put an advisory question on the ballot – which is what I think Sen. Brewster has in mind here. Gauging the sentiment of the public would be non-binding – but it would be a way to get a real idea of public opinion. – John Micek


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