Why Advocates Say It’s Time To Legalize Recreational Marijuana In Pennsylvania

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Since taking office earlier this year, Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has spent a lot of time talking about marijuana.

Out of the gate, he pushed for legalized recreational use of the drug there and said he wants to see that become a reality by the end of this year. He even included $60 million in tax revenue from legal pot in his first budget proposal. It’s all part of an aggressive plan to shore up revenue and spending in a state with a famously cloudy financial picture.

At this point you may be thinking, “I don’t live in Jersey, so I don’t care.”

But since you live in neighboring Pennsylvania, maybe you should.

Advocates here are closely monitoring Jersey’s movement. Many believe that if the Garden State adopts a recreational marijuana program, it could prove a tipping point on this side of the Delaware River.

There are a few reasons for this, many involving the parallels between our states, both political and otherwise.

For starters, New Jersey, much like Pennsylvania, has suffered through years of budget dysfunction and spending that’s outpaced revenue. Both states could benefit mightily from an influx of tax money gleaned from sales of legal weed.

In fact, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has said recreational weed could raise $200 million in tax revenue in the Commonwealth annually as Pennsylvania continues to face a $3 billion budget gap.

Pennsylvania, like New Jersey, already has a medical marijuana program in place and a majority of Pennsylvanians — 59 percent according to a 2017 Franklin & Marshall College Poll — support fully legalized pot here.

In 2017 alone, Pennsylvania spent around $46 million in taxpayer dollars to prosecute people with less than an ounce of cannabis, Philly.com reported. (That doesn’t include incarceration costs or follow-up legal costs.) Murphy says Jersey spends roughly $140 million per year adjudicating low-level marijuana offenses.

And if Jersey legalized recreational pot, it’s safe to say the tax money leaving Pennsylvania to purchase marijuana next door would capture Harrisburg’s interest. This is particularly true in the southeastern part of the state, where one bridge and a few thousand feet separate Philadelphia and cities like Camden.

But there are also key differences between the two.

Jersey’s state legislature is Democrat-controlled — and, we should note, somewhat undecided on this issue — while the partisan makeup of Pennsylvania’s legislature is very much the opposite.

Additionally, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has failed to embrace legalized adult-use marijuana the way Murphy has.

“Governor Wolf’s focus continues to be maximizing the impact, benefits and accessibility of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program for patients,” spokesman J.J. Abbott said in a written statement to The Incline.

Abbott added, “The administration just recently approved recommendations to expand the program to cover more conditions, improve accessibility by allowing the sale of dry leaf, and allowing new permits for more dispensaries and growers/processors. Governor Wolf continues to support statewide decriminalization, as well, to keep low-level marijuana users out of the criminal justice system.”

Wolf’s current Lieutenant Governor, Mike Stack, echoes this sentiment, saying he supports legalized medical marijuana, decriminalization and “using the experiences of the states that have legalized recreational marijuana to inform Pennsylvania policy moving forward.”

Stack is running for re-election — as is Wolf — against a crowded field of Democratic challengers for the LG post.

One of those candidates, frontrunner and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, told The Incline by phone this week that he supports legalizing recreational marijuana and that the case for doing so is, more than a fiscal imperative, a moral one.

“It needs to be taken off of Schedule One. It needs to stop messing up people’s parole. There is a human cost to this…”

But making legalized recreational pot a reality in Pennsylvania will undoubtedly require making the financial argument if fiscal conservatives are to be brought onboard.

This as Pennsylvania has no referendum law and any statewide ballot question in Pennsylvania must be authorized by a separate act of the legislature, meaning legislative approval or support is indispensable to this process.

“If you’re an economic conservative or a Libertarian conservative, you’ve got to be in favor of ending prohibition, and all the money that could come in and go to tax cuts has to be very appealing,” state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-17, said.

“Social conservatives live in terror that someone somewhere is gonna have fun, and so they are dead-enders on this.”

One of the most vocal proponents of legal weed in Harrisburg, Leach dropped his campaign for U.S. Congress earlier this year following sexual harassment allegations. Democrats, including the governor, have called for his resignation from State Senate, calls Leach has so far refused to heed.

Leach introduced a bill to make recreational marijuana legal in Pennsylvania and to have its sale regulated much like the Commonwealth has with alcohol for generations. That bill was introduced three years ago, Leach said, and remains in committee. Leach also cosponsored the medical marijuana bill signed into law by Gov. Wolf in 2016.

As a result, Pennsylvania now has a functioning medical marijuana program that’s expected to become one of the largest in the country. And it’s worth noting the fears that a legal recreational program would severely undercut it.

“Why would patients bother to go through the hassle of obtaining a medical marijuana license if they could obtain the same products and more — and likely for less money — without ever needing one?” the thinking goes. (The same could be said of legalized adult-use in New Jersey, for that matter.)

There’s also a lingering federal prohibition that makes states toying with the idea of legal weed nervous — and the larger cannabis industry nervous, as well.

Gov. Wolf cited neither of these reasons in explaining his reluctance to back legalized adult-use here.

“The governor is running for reelection,” Leach said. “I think he’s afraid, broadly speaking, to say anything on a variety of issues.”

Leach added, “I think he just wants to get through the election without controversy. But I hope after the election he will spend some time learning about the issue and realize there’s nothing progressive about prohibition.”

As Abbott pointed out, the governor has embraced criminal justice reform as it pertains to marijuana. And a number of Pennsylvania cities have already enacted such measures at the local level.

In 2014, Philadelphia became the largest U.S. city to decriminalize simple marijuana possession. In 2016, Pittsburgh did the same. State College, Erie, Harrisburg and York have also enacted similar ordinances.

But Pennsylvania’s most ardent legal marijuana advocates, Leach included, say decriminalizing pot doesn’t go far enough. They point to the quality control mechanisms put in place with state-approved recreational or adult-use programs and the segments of the black market those programs render null and void.

“Decriminalization alone is a dumb idea,” Leach explained. “It reduces penalties for use but people still have to buy it from cartels and you have no way of knowing if it’s safe or not.”

And again, maybe most crucially for lawmakers, decriminalization raises no money for the state, although it saves money that would otherwise be spent on prosecutions — roughly $46 million per year in front-end criminal justice costs, according to Philly.com. That figure is compared to the $200 million per year in revenue that legal pot could generate for Pennsylvania, per DePasquale. DePasquale based that estimate off figures gleaned from Colorado, the first state in the nation to legalize recreational use of the drug.

Still, if neighboring states like New Jersey or New York move on legal weed, either of which could become the first state on the east coast to do so, Pennsylvania may have no choice but to follow suit.

“New Jersey and New York are moving in that direction and that would put great economic pressure on Pennsylvania,” Leach said.

“Forty years ago you could only gamble in one state, and today you can gamble in some form in 48 states. Once people see that society doesn’t end with legalization and that states like Colorado are making hundreds of millions of dollars a year — I think it’s not only feasible but inevitable here.”