There are lot of things to worry about in Pennsylvania besides pot.
The Keystone State’s poverty rate is a little over the national average and ranks 23rd out of 50 states, along with a child poverty rate that’s 17 percent. About 1 in every 8 Pennsylvanians are dealing with food insecurity, along with 1 in 6 children. That’s 40 percent of households with children that receive SNAP benefits, which is 62 percent of the total, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
It is the 14th most polluted state (out of all 56 U.S. states and territories), according to Pollution Information Site’s Scorecard, in terms of total toxic chemical releases by state. Its flagship city, Philadelphia, ranks high on the American Lung Association’s most polluted city lists, and as the state receives an overall grade of C- on the national infrastructure report card, drinking-water systems in the commonwealth received a D. And when compared with other states, Pennsylvania ranked 38th on a 2018 U.S. News & World Report state education performance list.
And these challenges don’t begin to fully capture the poverty-stricken picture in Philadelphia, hotbed of some of the worst socioeconomic and environmental indicators in the country.
Philadelphia — particularly black Philadelphia — was largely responsible for giving Gov. Tom Wolf and running mate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman the electoral advantage he needed to win his second term over Republican nominee Scott Wagner in 2018. But a statewide listening tour on recreational marijuana, like the one Fetterman is currently doing, doesn’t exactly say “thank you.”
In Philadelphia alone, black residents make up 76 percent of all marijuana-related arrests; in the Philadelphia suburbs, they are 40 percent of marijuana arrests while more than a quarter of all such arrests statewide. That’s an extension of the distressed state of black life in the city, its suburbs, and beyond, aggravated by the continued existence of worsening socioeconomic indicators. And yet, despite the fact that black Pennsylvanians represent a disproportionate share of the increase in marijuana arrests throughout the state, especially in the Philadelphia region, recreational legalization is not that crucial of a priority for them when faced with other challenges.
That’s why when Fetterman does show up here (something not yet scheduled), Philadelphia residents should give him an earful on a grisly list of problems that far outweigh the ideological clash over who gets to smoke weed. How about a statewide tour to address the struggles with public schools? What about talking to folks across the city and state about that poverty rate, or about jobs?
For sure, legalizing marijuana would have its benefits — such as an estimated $600 million in additional revenue that could be used to fund schools or infrastructure projects. Colorado and Washington saw an additional $250 million and $320 million, respectively, in “cannabis-related taxes and fees in 2017,” according to Forbes’ Nick Kovacevich.
Harrisburg is watching that closely, as well as the revenue trickling in to the 10 states that have legalized recreational use, something that could generate more money and prove less of a regulatory hassle than medicinal marijuana use. Last month a bill to legalize recreational marijuana was introduced in Harrisburg, with several Democratic cosponsors. Still, Republican leadership has opposed the idea, despite the fact that their constituents across the state have indicated they favor the change.
That constituent support highlights how pot could represent a creative bridge to the whitest, most rural, and suburban locations in the state, places typically unfriendly (and, at times, outright hostile) to blue-state overtures. Support for the legalized use of marijuana among Pennsylvania voters has climbed astronomically, from just 22 percent in 2006 to 59 percent in 2017, according to Franklin & Marshall College polling. It appears to defy partisan lines and polarization.
And yet, regardless of that bipartisan constituent support, marijuana is still not Pennsylvania’s most pressing issue — unless you’re a politician looking for something that could positively distinguish Democratic state leadership from bah-humbug Republicans among the white working- and middle-class voters heading to 2020 and beyond.
Marijuana legalization stumps well. Those listening-tour town halls have become standing room only with mostly white residents. They show that whites — contrary to long-held racial stereotypes — do use marijuana at roughly the same rate as blacks do. And now with relaxed law enforcement over marijuana in Pennsylvania, these same folks are looking to take advantage of a booming cannabis economy.
That’s an attractive proposition for Trump Country voters in Pennsylvania, and state Democrats are banking on it working as a defense mechanism to retake the state in the 2020 presidential election.
But let’s get real: What Democrats really need to take back Pennsylvania in 2020 is black Philadelphia. African American voters who helped Barack Obama sail to victory in Pennsylvania stayed home in large numbers in 2016. Without them, Hillary Clinton lost the state — and the election.
A listening tour on quality of life in Pennsylvania, gauging the pillar economic and social challenges state residents face, would have been far more effective than a listening tour on pot.