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Legalizing Marijuana in PA: A Too Familiar Script

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,  Lt. Governor-elect John 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%) supported legalization. This was up from about two in ten (22%) 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.

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 Speaker of the House Mike Turzai and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, 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 it to the millions that now consume it.

In addition, the revenues collected from taxing marijuana use, together with the multi billion-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 a “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?


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.

8 Responses

  1. In most states and commonwealths where pot is legal, it is only so because They The People are allowed to bypass their out of touch legislatures, and vote against them in a citizen’s referendum. We The PA Sheep, for some unfathomable reason, continue to tolerate our electeds prohibiting citizen initiatives on our ballots.

    As long as we continue to do so, all 12 million of us will continue to be dictated to by an incredibly small number of those elected in super safe gerrymandered districts. The same districts which we are also prohibited from changing.

    So much sovereignty. So much winning.

  2. It would be dumb not too legalize do they wana keep letring our money float to the other states ? And keep trying to stop something that every other household in this state consumes just about… Not to mention all we could do with that tax money for Pennsylvania pr do we wana keep giving our money through blackmarket internet sales or even worse our neighbor states? We all know what the government wants more money ?,, Correct well quit turning our heads for a free handout??? And jump on board this is 2019 we have done the Research and we all know it is harmless, and Healing not harmfull or Dangerous

  3. Republicans likely have a stronger reason to not support legalization that they’re not revealing. I highly doubt it has anything to do with conservative viewpoint and more to do with investments they must possess. 99% of time, it’s always about money.

    1. Probably the same reason Democrats stick to the State Store System: Reasons Beyond Comprehension.

  4. I am opposed to my own recreational use of pot but after encountering several doctors forms for new patients asking if I used recreational drugs and assessing the “under the radar” use of the pot in our society I have reached the conclusion that pot will be legalized in Pa and it is only a question of when. The Terry Madonna article here is well said and I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Madonna that Pa will not take the bull by the horns on this issue but will be backed into approving it. NJ is very close to approval. NY is going in that direction. So, it’s only a matter of time. Until then King Scarnati will have his royal court issuing edicts about how pot is a gateway drug and all the other perils. Pity we don’t have real leadership on the marijuana issue.

  5. Republicans, beholden to extreme social conservatives, will never do this, despite the money and business it will bring.

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