Should Pennsylvania follow other states like Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and California in legalizing the recreational use of marijuana?
That is the question Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and congressional candidate Joe Peters debated Thursday at Widener Law School in Susquehanna Township. Peters is a Republican looking to replace Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, who is seeking to unseat Democrat Bob Casey in the U.S. Senate.
“There is a better path,” DePasquale said. “We can regulate and tax marijuana similar to how Colorado has done.”
DePasquale, who supports the legalization and taxation of recreational marijuana, contended the state could gain roughly $350 million in revenue from the marijuana industry.
He based his estimates on revenues garnered by Colorado, which in 2017 brought nearly $250 million in tax revenue from the legalized marijuana industry, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.
Peters countered, saying the societal costs of legalization will far outweigh the tax revenue benefits, citing a statistic that $1 in tax revenue is counteracted by $10 in societal and health costs.
When questioned after the debate, Peters referred to the book “Reefer Sanity” by Kevin Sabet, the director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and co-founder of Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana. However, the estimates used by Sabet are based on the costs and tax benefits of tobacco and alcohol, which may or may not translate to costs associated with marijuana use.
A 2009 study published in Visions Journal found the health costs for marijuana use to be substantially lower than those of alcohol or tobacco use. For example, the research determined the health costs for the roughly 3.6 million marijuana users in Canada was about $73 million per year, while the health costs for the roughly 5.3 million tobacco users was about $4.2 billion per year.
Both DePasquale and Peters said they supported medical marijuana, which is underway in Pennsylvania, but differed on recreational use.
“We are about to embark in medical marijuana in Pennsylvania,” Peters said. “We don’t know what is going to happen, so why take a step and overlay another drug to the problems we already have?”
The two debaters highlighted the overdose epidemic and opiate use; DePasquale saying it is a reason for legalization, and Peters saying it is a reason against.
DePasquale said the passage of marijuana legalization was associated with a 25 percent reduction in opiate-deaths. However, when questioned after the debate, DePasquale did not cite a study for that figure but said it came from numbers from states like Colorado and Oregon.
A 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health found marijuana legalization in Colorado resulted in about a reduction of one death per month from opiate-related overdoses. The study said this reduction stopped a rising trend of overdoses between 2010 and 2015, but did not mention a 25 percent reduction figure.
Studies have found the legalization of medical marijuana is associated with a roughly 20 percent reduction of opiate-related overdose deaths.
However, a recent report by RAND economists calls into question those results as they relate to current opiate use trends.
Most of the studies that link medical marijuana to a fall in opiate-related overdose deaths looked at a time period between 1999 and 2010, the RAND report said. When those calculations were tracked to 2013, the reductions in deaths were completely eliminated, the study’s authors found.
The RAND study in part contends medical marijuana laws were effective at reducing opiate-related overdose deaths when they include loosely regulated dispensaries and at a time when the overdose deaths were driven by prescription opiates.
Currently, heroin and the more recent infiltration of fentanyl in illicit drug markets has been the main driver of overdose deaths, according to the RAND report.
Teen drug use was another point where DePasquale and Peters expressed diverging opinions.
DePasquale contended legalization and regulation of marijuana could reduce teen marijuana use, comparing it to regulating the purchase of alcohol and tobacco.
Peters on the other hand said legalization would increase teen marijuana use.
“Eugene (DePasquale) has argued that this will be a tax benefit, and I say at what cost?” Peters said. “The drug data show anywhere marijuana use is legalized recreationally, youth use goes up.”
The federal National Survey on Drug Use and Health found youth use of marijuana actually fell following legalization, dropping in both use in the past year and percentage of people age 12 to 17 first using the drug.
Use among those 18 or older was up following legalization in Colorado, according to the NSDUH.