By E. Fletcher McClellan
With Lt. Gov. John Fetterman kicking off a statewide listening tour this week, what are the chances that Pennsylvania will join the 10 states that alread have legalized recreational marijuana use?
Previously opposed to legal weed, Gov. Tom Wolf called for a broader discussion of the idea. Interestingly, he referred to potential competitors New York and New Jersey, where marijuana reform efforts are well under way.
Public opinion has shifted strongly toward legalization. A Pew poll last fall showed over 60 percent support nationally, doubling the support registered in 2000. Surveyed in fall 2017 by Franklin and Marshall College, 59 percent of Pennsylvanians favored recreational marijuana.
Pennsylvania is one of 33 states that has legalized medical marijuana, so there is some momentum for taking the next step. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale favors legalization, arguing last summer that Pennsylvania could reap $581 million in tax revenue annually.
If anything, DePasquale underestimated the potential gains from legalized marijuana.
Though Pennsylvania has over twice the adult population of Colorado and near twice that of Washington, both of which legalized the drug in 2012, the auditor general’s office estimated total sales in Pennsylvania would be $1.66 billion, compared to $1.5 billion actual sales in Colorado and $1.3 billion in Washington in 2017.
The reason for the similar forecasts was that only eight percent of adults here were predicted to use pot regularly, while usage rates in the other states were higher (17 percent in Colorado).
However, the Colorado and Washington adult use rates increased by one-third since the start of legalization, and we might expect a significant rise in Pennsylvania over time.
By comparison, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board reported record sales of $2.59 billion in 2017-18, including $702 million in contributions to the General Fund.
By assigning Fetterman, a supporter of legalization, to the job of gathering public comment on the issue, Wolf may be expecting a report that favors marijuana reform.
Not only have pro-pot organizations and businesses big and small changed the politics of legalization, but so has a convergence with other issues.
Arrests for marijuana possession and sales have contributed to mass incarceration, disproportionately affecting African-Americans. Thus, legalization of weed is connected to efforts at criminal justice reform.
Adding to marijuana’s purported medical benefits, supporters say that pot is a less-dangerous substitute for opioid-based pain medication.
The sponsor of one legalization proposal, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, treats legalized marijuana the same as alcohol: Legal to adults over 21, strictly regulated and heavily taxed, with driver use subject to DUI laws.
Stressing criminal justice reform, the bill would also expunge the records of all who were convicted of marijuana possession.
At the federal level, bills have been introduced to remove pot from the list of Schedule I drugs that include heroin and LSD. Certainly, the anomaly of so many states legalizing a substance for medical or recreational use that is considered dangerous by the US government has to be addressed.
In addition, marijuana reform will be discussed in the 2020 presidential campaign. U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; Cory Booker. D-N.J.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are among those who support legalization.
To be sure, many obstacles remain to legalization in Pennsylvania. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, called Wolf’s openness to marijuana reform “reckless and irresponsible.”
There are real concerns about exaggerated health benefits of marijuana, its potential as a gateway to more harmful drugs, and its role in making highway driving more hazardous. The absence of federally-sponsored research into the drug’s medical and social effects means that policy makers have been operating in the dark.
Also, decisions must be made about how weed will be sold, consumed, regulated, and taxed. In all likelihood, marijuana revenues will be directed to a specific purpose. Colorado funds schools, while Washington applies pot money to Medicaid.
Still, the economic pull of pot may be too strong for the governor and lawmakers to ignore. Strong resistance to general tax increases means that the state has grown more dependent on vice-related revenues. Taxes on alcohol and cigarettes have increased, gaming has expanded, and sports betting is now legal.
One could see the makings of a grand bargain in which legalization of marijuana for recreational use is exchanged for greater privatization or expansion of liquor sales. Directing marijuana money to public health in a state hard hit by the opioid crisis seems like a no-brainer.
Sooner or later, the time for legal weed in Pennsylvania will come.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor E. Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College. His work will appear frequently.