Sooner – and probably not later – the time for legal weed in Pa. will come | Opinion

A speaker addresses Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Rep. Patty Kim. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

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.

1 COMMENT

  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.

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