Why is the Pa. GOP keeping us stuck in cannabis prohibition? | Opinion

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman testifies at a House and Senate Democratic joint Policy Committee hearing on marijuana legalization.

In Pennsylvania the effort to legalize adult use cannabis reform is enjoying bipartisan support with state Sens Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, and Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, joining together with plans to introduce a comprehensive bill.

Legalization is moving forward rapidly across the United States. Even the entire country of Mexico ended prohibition this year. Our neighbors, New York and New Jersey, have not only legalized the “adult use” of cannabis for retail sales, but both states already put a full stop to all possession arrests.

Meanwhile more than 20,000 cannabis consumers were arrested in Pennsylvania for simple possession during 2020. New Mexico and Virginia have also managed to pass retail cannabis bills through their legislatures in 2021 as well.

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Today, more than 130 million Americans living in 16 states, Guam and District of Columbia reside where cannabis is fully legal.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has pledged to move cannabis reform through the U.S. Senate in the form of the U.S. House-approved MORE Act.

And, should that bill pass in Congress, then marijuana would be completely removed from the federal Controlled Substances Act. Will we still keep up arrests for a few grams of weed then?

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has made legalization a central theme of his tenure and now his U.S. Senate campaign.

Fetterman and Gov. Tom Wolf have called for full legalization for years in an effort to remedy the harms caused by cannabis prohibition.

They both, correctly, tout that regulating the plant is a vehicle to more jobs and much needed tax revenue.

It’s understandable that Pennsylvania’s Republican leadership in the House and Senate greet cannabis reform cautiously.

As the majority party they control the legislative agenda. But, the PAGOP took on medical cannabis in 2015-2016, with all of its challenges, and now as we have a fully operating medical cannabis program.

What voters like me can’t understand is why our Republican leadership won’t take on full legalization in the same businesslike way.

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Now, the PAGOP is resorting to simply telling outright lies about cannabis policy. The most egregious is that cannabis is a “gateway drug” to other substances.

Even the National Institute of Drug Abuse acknowledges that the majority of cannabis consumers do not progress to harder drugs. NIDA data has shown that nicotine and alcohol are also typically used before one uses other substances.

Pennsylvania, of course, has a near monopoly on the distribution of alcohol and derives significant revenue from taxing alcohol and tobacco products. Republican leadership in the Senate and House have chided efforts to legalize “in the midst of an opioid crisis.”

The same lie was unsuccessfully deployed during the efforts to legalize medical cannabis. Lies will not thwart the will of an increasing majority of Pennsylvania voters.

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What makes Republican anti-cannabis rhetoric more frustrating is that we have nearly a decade of solid data from states that have seen all of the benefits of regulation, with none of the ballyhooed harms.

Washington and Colorado led the way in 2014 with states such as Oregon, Nevada, Arizona and California following shortly thereafter.

Let’s take a look at the data, through the Pa. GOP’s concerns:

  • A multi-year study by The British Medical Association (BMJ) covering 812 counties in 23 states that have some form of legal cannabis found that “[h]igher medical and recreational storefront dispensary counts are associated with reduced opioid related death rates, particularly deaths associated with synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.”
  • Many medical cannabis states, including Pennsylvania, thankfully make medical cannabis available for opioid addiction treatment.
  • States with medical cannabis programs have seen the rates of new opioid prescriptions steadily declining. A 2018 publication by the Journal of American Medicine found a significant reduction in opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees.

The National Institute of Health published similar findings in Canada after it legalized adult use. The medical experts know all the data confirms that cannabis is effective in treating chronic pain and opioid addiction. Any politician claiming otherwise isn’t working with the truth.

Several prominent Republican officials have claimed that legalization will unleash a torrent of stoned drivers, menacing our roadways while law enforcement is helpless to detect them. Certainly, impaired driving is a very legitimate concern for any substance.

Responsible adult use is also a big factor here, just like drinking and driving.

Again, our Republican leadership pretends that no other state has legalized adult use cannabis and that Pennsylvania is teetering on the precipice of the unknown. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It may come as a surprise to our Republican friends, but law enforcement in Pennsylvania have been aggressively prosecuting drug impaired drivers for decades. For many years officers receive training from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on detecting “drug impaired drivers.”

These officers are then certified as “Drug Recognition Experts”. As reform advocates, we fully agree that the issue of impaired driving is an important one that merits honest discussion and debate.

There has been no statistically significant increase in cannabis-only DUI arrests or cannabis-only vehicular homicide in any state that has legalized cannabis. Most states with retail cannabis have seen a decrease in alcohol DUI and alcohol DUI fatalities.

Retail cannabis can bring tens of thousands of new jobs and hundreds of millions in new tax revenue, a significant undertaking. Advocates and opponents alike have many issues, questions and concerns about this “new green world” in the Commonwealth.

The starting point must be an honest discussion about the risks and rewards of adult use regulation. Lying to Pennsylvanians is inexcusable. We deserve the truth about the benefits of legalization.

Patrick K. Nightingale, an attorney, writes on behalf of Pittsburgh NORML.