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N.J. legalized weed. Now it’s Pa.’s turn. | Editorial

Gov. Tom Wolf supports legalizing recreational marijuana, as New Jersey did last week. But will Republicans in Harrisburg allow Pennsylvania to take this step, or risk losing lucrative market share?

Strains of medical marijuana for sale at Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, N.J.
Strains of medical marijuana for sale at Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, N.J.Read moreSam Wood

New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana by a margin of 2-1 on Nov. 3. But the task of devising legislation to enable this new industry to grow jobs and revenue — while helping heal the wounds of the nation’s wrongheaded ‘war’ on drugs — is off to a rocky start in Trenton.

While there’s general agreement on decriminalizing the use of illegal marijuana in advance of the launch of licensed recreational sales, lawmakers are at odds over how and how much to tax cannabis, and how to provide minorities and women with opportunities to grow, refine, and sell weed and weed-related products in the state. Members of a Cannabis Control Commission will be appointed to oversee this new industry.

The state Department of Health already monitors a network of dispensaries serving New Jersey’s 80,000 medical marijuana patients. But the enabling legislation should ensure that small, local, minority, and female-owned businesses — not just chain operators and big corporations — get a chance to serve this potentially lucrative market.

Lawmakers also should provide resources to expedite the expungement of lifelong criminal records resulting from minor marijuana offenses, as is provided for in the reforms Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law last year. A streamlined and affordable expungement process could remove a burden that decades of overenforcement and sentencing disparities have inflicted largely on Black and brown communities.

» READ MORE: New Jersey has legalized weed. Here’s why Pa. may take a different path.

Difficulties aside, New Jersey’s progress also could energize Pennsylvania’s effort to legalize recreational weed. Despite Gov. Tom Wolf’s evolution from opponent to enthusiastic proponent, a 2019 statewide “listening tour” by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and what polls suggest is substantial support among ordinary Pennsylvanians, the Republicans who control Harrisburg have been implacably opposed. The state’s catastrophic loss of sales tax and other revenue due to the pandemic could soften such opposition.

The Murphy administration estimates $32.4 million in sales taxes plus $7.3 million from fees charged by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission together would yield $49.7 million in new revenue during the six months after the start of recreational adult-use cannabis sales. The state anticipates that additional revenue, possibly by the imposition of an excise tax of as much as $42 per ounce on growers, will be forthcoming as well.

» READ MORE: Pay attention: Pa. is poised to fall off a budget cliff | Editorial

Recreational marijuana revenue is no more a magical solution to budget ailments than are “sin” taxes on tobacco or gambling. But it would be foolish for Pennsylvania to forego a potential new revenue source, and wrong to ignore legalization’s social justice benefits. New Jersey’s move puts pressure on Pennsylvania — if for nothing else than to undercut the competitive edge the Garden State will enjoy while pot in the Keystone State remains illegal.

Nevertheless, Republicans in Harrisburg continue to insist legalization is a nonstarter. Leaders of the GOP majorities in the Pennsylvania House and Senate have dismissed as insignificant the estimated $200 million annually in additional revenue the state could realize from legal weed sales.

But what ought to be equally important to legislators in Pennsylvania, as well as New Jersey, is that legalization represents an opportunity to right a historic wrong. Squandering this chance in Trenton and Harrisburg, whether through action or inaction, would be not only wasteful but shameful.