Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recently announced that he is now in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, following a months-long statewide recreational marijuana listening tour in which Lt. Gov. John Fetterman talked to residents in all 67 counties about the issue.
Following Wolf’s announcement, Attorney General Josh Shapiro echoed the governor’s statement, tweeting, “Continuing to criminalize adult personal marijuana use is a waste of limited law enforcement resources, it disproportionately impacts our minority communities, and it does not make us safer.”
Legalization won’t be simple, though, as the legislature’s top Republicans do not support the measure. “Our caucus has no plans or interest in legalizing recreational marijuana,” the House’s Republican leadership said in a joint statement.
Recreational marijuana use is currently legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Several other states are currently making moves on the issue, including New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill decriminalizing recreational use of marijuana in July, but fell short of his goal to fully legalize the substance in 2019.
Legalization continues to be a hot-button issue in New Jersey, where it is now likely that voters will make the decision in the November 2020 election, according to state Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
The Inquirer turns to advocates on both sides of the issue to debate: Should Pennsylvania legalize recreational marijuana?
Gov. Wolf’s decision to embrace recreational marijuana legalization not only is common sense, but also makes social, financial, public health, and public safety sense, and will undoubtedly benefit all Pennsylvanians in one way or another.
Marijuana prohibition, through tough-on-crime enforcement and its collateral consequences, has disproportionately impacted low-income and communities of color and continues to do so to this day. While research shows white people use marijuana at the same rate as, and in many cases more than, black or brown people, those arrested for marijuana possession are overwhelmingly black and brown. In fact, a 2017 American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania report examined data from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program from 2010-2016 and found that black adults were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. When Philadelphia was removed from the picture — where civil offenses have replaced criminal arrests since October 2014 — the racial disparity grew to 6.1 times greater.
If taking steps to address these egregious racial injustices isn’t reason enough, the financial benefits should be. Between the additional tax revenue from marijuana sales and law enforcement cost savings, legalization will result in a windfall of new funding that can be devoted to more pressing needs, such as community reinvestment, education, transportation, support for local municipalities, and public health resources to respond to the overdose crisis, which has hit Pennsylvania particularly hard.
In 2017, Pennsylvania had the third-highest rate of accidental overdose deaths in the U.S., only surpassed by West Virginia and Ohio. With a portion of the additional tax revenue from marijuana legalization, Pennsylvania would be better able to fund public health approaches, such as drug education for our youth, evidence-based treatment, peer support, housing, and harm reduction services. Additionally, research shows marijuana to be an advantageous alternative to opioid prescribing for pain management without the same side effects and risk of misuse.
According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, Pennsylvania has the potential to gain over $424 million in marijuana tax revenue a year. Under the current laws, Pennsylvanians are instead spending over $46 million a year just to prosecute people for having less than an ounce of weed. When we take into account the cost to actually incarcerate or put a person on supervised probation, the cost is, of course, much higher.
In addition to the near-term benefits, legalization would improve future outcomes for young people — who are also disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition. Those under the age of 30 represented 71% of all low-level marijuana arrests in Pennsylvania. By removing criminal penalties for marijuana possession, we are giving them a chance to succeed without being saddled by convictions that could prevent them from finding or maintaining a job, accessing financial aid to go to college, obtaining housing, and even putting their immigration status at risk. In turn, they are able to positively contribute to society, pay taxes, and support their families.
Legalizing marijuana also frees up law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes, which results in improved public safety. In Washington and Colorado, for example, researchers found that in the years following legalization, there was a dramatic improvement in clearance rates — the rate in which crimes are solved — for violent crimes, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and overall property crime.
If nothing else, we know that criminalizing marijuana does not deter use. Instead, it just drives people to an unregulated underground market — and what we are now seeing with the cluster of recent vaping illnesses is that the lack of regulation of products can prove fatal. Having a regulated market ensures oversight over production, sale, consumption, potency, and labeling, and ensures products meet strict safety standards, are kept out of the hands of minors, and provide consumers with accurate information about potential harms.
It is clearly in Pennsylvania’s best interest to move swiftly to legalize and regulate marijuana. It’s what is necessary to begin righting the wrongs of the past, and it’s what is right to improve the lives of Pennsylvanians going forward.
Queen Adesuyi is a policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance’s National Affairs Office in Washington. @QueenAdesuyi
Calls to legalize marijuana often lead with the cry of social justice. Many advocates argue that legalization will right the wrongs of our racist past in the criminal justice system.
In reality, legalization would make our society much less just than it is now. Legalization would lead to increased commercialization of marijuana, playing into the hands of an intoxicating, addictive, for-profit industry that is appropriating problems of systemic injustice to the tune of billions of dollars in profits. Pennsylvania should instead focus on decriminalization.
Marijuana commercialization advocates have shrewdly pointed to ethnically disparate arrest rates that show black people are disproportionately targeted for enforcement of marijuana laws. While the problems they highlight are painfully true, their solution is both ineffective and disingenuous. It does nothing to punish, prosecute, or remove individuals or institutions with records of racism and discriminatory law enforcement practices — true reform. Instead, it creates a predatory industry that targets communities of color and other disadvantaged communities with an oversaturation of ads and stores likes its predecessors Big Tobacco, the alcohol industry, and the lottery.
When I walk out the front door of my home, the first store that I get to in any direction is a liquor store. Going a bit further, when I get to a convenience store, it is so plastered with advertisements for liquor, cigarettes, and the lottery that I can’t even see inside the windows.
A study from Johns Hopkins University found that “such stores have been shown to be an important component of the social infrastructure that destabilizes communities.” We shouldn’t be celebrating legislation that permits irresponsible, predatory industries marketing another intoxicating and addictive substance to embed itself in our communities.
Big Tobacco isn’t standing by either. In 2018, Altria, the parent company to Philip Morris, invested over a billion dollars in marijuana and subsequently invested another several billion in Juul, the vaping company that is now being investigated by the FDA for its marketing practices that have created a near epidemic of teen vaping. The CDC has now linked marijuana vapes to a majority of over 800 cases of a mysterious lung ailment and at least two of 12 subsequent deaths.
These companies are irresponsible, unrepentant, and poorly regulated even in 2019.
That isn’t social justice. It’s about grabbing money from neighborhoods like mine. John Boehner, former Big Tobacco lobbyist and former Republican speaker of the House, stands to make millions from federal legalization; the former CEO of Purdue Pharma, which brought us OxyContin, left to head up a pot company.
Profit is clearly their intent. Wealthy white investors and corporations are co-opting issues of systemic injustice as a front for their business moves, and the hard work needed for real criminal justice reform is being left by the wayside.
States that have commercialized marijuana continue to show racial disparities in marijuana arrests. No state that passed legalization has seen any corresponding drop in prison populations. And as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, equity-focused regulations that were written into state laws are being blatantly ignored or accomplishing nothing. Pennsylvania can and should decriminalize personal marijuana use and possession and offer expungements and resentencing. However, commercializing another intoxicating and addictive substance moves past social justice reform and instead lines the pockets of wealthy, mostly white investors at the expense of our most vulnerable populations.
Will Jones is a communications and outreach associate at Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a nonpartisan nonprofit that works with local, state, and federal legislators to promote science-based policies that reduce marijuana use and arrests and their consequences.