Before Pennsylvania becomes the Keystoner State, the Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg have a few things to say.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, appeared to give the green light to discussing the possibility of legalizing cannabis for adult use.
In a Twitter Q&A with constituents, Wolf said it was “time for Pennsylvania to take a serious and honest look at recreational marijuana.” The statement came as a surprise to advocates and legislators alike.
The response from GOP legislators was swift and especially combative.
State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) vowed he would do “everything in my power to prevent legalization of recreational marijuana.”
“The governor’s new position on the issue of legalizing the drug for recreational use is reckless and irresponsible," Corman said in a statement Wednesday night. “Recreational marijuana is a mind-altering narcotic which will harm our youth, as it is a depressant and a gateway drug to other illegal substances.
“Combine that with a lack of credible research on the societal costs and opposition from prosecutors, the medical community, and law enforcement and you have the makings of a catastrophe,” Corman said.
Legalization in 10 other states has applied only to residents over the age of 21. The notion of marijuana as a “gateway drug” to other illegal substances long has been debunked by studies. There has been opposition by some law enforcement officials and physicians, but many of legalization’s strongest supporters are current and former prosecutors and doctors.
State Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) said Pennsylvania needs to remain focused on the medical marijuana program.
“We don’t need ‘rec’ right now,” said Folmer, who co-sponsored the legislation that created the medical program. “We’re moving along, we’re doing it the right way. We’re far from where we need to be with research. But I want marijuana to become respected first. If we don’t, it will become a joke again and we’ll slip back into the old Cheech and Chong ways of thinking about it.”
Wolf’s tweet late Wednesday appeared to signal a change of heart. In an August interview, Wolf told KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh that the citizens of Pennsylvania were “not ready” for legalization.
The governor was not immediately available for comment, so it’s unclear why Wolf now thinks the time is ripe for a discussion. However, Wolf won re-election in November with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman on the ballot and Fetterman has long been a vocal proponent of full legalization.
Pennsylvania’s neighbors appear to be ready to pass legislation in 2019 that will allow commercial sales to any adult over the age of 21. Gov. Murphy of New Jersey and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, both Democrats, have pushed to add their states to the 10 that have ended cannabis prohibition.
Pennsylvania began sales of medical marijuana earlier this year, with nearly 100,000 patients applying to participate in the program. This week, the state Department of Health awarded permits increasing the number of possible commercial dispensaries to a minimum of 150. If the state’s marijuana research program ever launches (it’s been stalled by numerous lawsuits), an additional 48 retail stores could be added, raising the total to nearly 200 dispensaries.
Many current medical dispensary owners have said they would be happy to sell to a broader consumer base.
Full legalization was once considered a pipe dream. But for industry analysts, the question has been not if, but “when” legalization will occur. They envision a potential $23 billion market for weed and weed-based products.
Numerous cities in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh among them, already have decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of cannabis.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, has said full legalization across the state would generate hundreds of millions in tax revenue.
"It’s time for the General Assembly to have a serious discussion about taking the next step,” DePasquale said Thursday. “A recent Gallup survey found record support from nearly two-thirds of adults who favor legalization at the national level. It’s simply time for public policy to catch up with public opinion.”