When it comes to marijuana legalization, Pa. is following a familiar script | Opinion

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By G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young

 It wasn’t surprising when Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf recently suggested it was time for the state to take a “serious” and “honest” look at the legalization of recreational marijuana. Earlier he had opined that the time was not quite “ripe.” But Wolf, term limited and following a smashing reelection victory, is now emboldened to move forward with what a majority of Pennsylvanians have already proclaimed: the time is very “ripe” to consider legalizing pot.

He is sending his Lt. Governor John Fetterman on a 67-county listening tour to gauge the reaction of Pennsylvanians to the prospects of legalization. Indeed, Fetterman already strongly advocates legalization.

One other leading state official has advocated its legalization –  Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. He argues that the state would gain more than a half a billion dollars in revenues from regulating and taxing marijuana consumption.

Already, some 33 states have legalized marijuana use in some form. Ten have legalized recreational use with the remainder (including Pennsylvania) adopting “medical marijuana.” Simultaneously, a powerful but separate parallel trend toward decriminalization of  marijuana use is rapidly gathering momentum, a trend supported by much of law enforcement across the country.

In Pennsylvania, popular support for legalizing marijuana is large and growing.

The last Franklin & Marshall College state poll to survey voters on the question (September, 2017) revealed that almost six of ten voters (59 percent) supported legalization.  This was up from about two in ten (22 percent) in the first year the question appeared in the poll (2006). So, in a bit more than a decade, support for marijuana legalization has much more than doubled.

The issue, however, has partisan overtones despite its majority support. While Democrats strongly support legalization, Republicans are less supportive. Some 66 percent of Democratic voters in the state favor legalization compared to only 42 percent of Republicans.

Franklin & Marshall poll, September 2017

Consequently, Pennsylvania is not likely to be the 11th or even the 12th state to make recreational marijuana legal. Republican leadership in the legislature, led by state House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, have been clear that they would fiercely oppose changing state law.

And for a while – two years at least, probably much longer- they will prevent any substantial legalization of recreational marijuana.

But like the little Dutch boy who plugged a dike with his finger, these marijuana opponents are likely to be swept away by the  tide of public opinion supporting legalization, augmented by the growing wave of legalization legislation moving forward in neighboring states.

Marijuana will eventually be legalized in Pennsylvania for a variety of other reasons: the drug is already widely used, scarce police resources are overwhelmed trying to stop it, legalization will cut directly into the incentives for organized crime, and legalizing will provide a safer supply of the drug to the millions who now consume it.

In addition, the revenues collected from taxing marijuana use, together with the multibillion-dollar industry it will produce, will create employment for thousands while dramatically lessening the perennial state and local government fiscal stress Pennsylvanians now endure.

Alas, these argument are unlikely to move Pennsylvania a single day closer to legalization. Marijuana opponents make the arguments that it’s “gateway” drug, quite addictive, and that it contributes to crime, while ensuring that that any effort to legalizing it won’t pass the General Assembly.

Does that mean Pennsylvania will never legalize marijuana?

No it doesn’t. But What it does means is that before legalization is achieved there will be a repetition of a pattern observed repeatedly when the state is confronted with the adoption of a popular but still controversial measures.

Pennsylvania punts, waiting as long as possible before being dragged fighting and screaming into modern times.

With marijuana  the forces arrayed against legalization will ignore public opinion indefinitely until one of two inevitable things happen

  1. Either Pennsylvania will become surrounded by states already legalizing marijuana while putting the state at a competitive disadvantage; (already New Jersey, Delaware, and New York, all bordering Pennsylvania, are moving toward legalization);
  2. Or another revenue crunch similar to the half dozen or so the state has experienced since the 1990’s will precipitate a fiscal crisis causing legislators to discover that a bunch of new revenue from legalization is possible without raising taxes.

We know it will happen this way because we have seen it too many times before – with alcoholic beverages and with gambling to name recent prominent examples. Eventually, popular opinion, party change in the legislature along with the addition of new, younger members will lead to its legalization.

Meantime, the legislature will ignore solid science, continue to pursue unsound public policies and scorn public opinion –until they run out of choices.

It would be nice this time if they just skipped all of that and did the job they were elected to do.

It would be nice if Pennsylvania didn’t have to be last again.

G. Terry Madonna is a political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Michael L. Young, a former Penn State University politics professor is a consultant, speaker and author. Their work will appear periodically on The Capital-Star’s Opinion page. 

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