After running for 2018 reelection without a clear position on marijuana, Gov. Tom Wolf came out in support of legalizing adult recreational use of marijuana last month. The announcement followed Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s listening tour through every county in the state, where he found a majority of residents supporting legalization.
We agree with those residents, and with the governor. Legalizing recreational marijuana could bring economic activity, improve public health, and make Pennsylvania a more just commonwealth.
Marijuana is currently in a weird legal limbo. Federal law prohibits marijuana. And yet, for close to three decades, more and more states have ignored the federal prohibition without consequence. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states legalized medical marijuana and 11 states legalized recreational use. To get out of this legal limbo, Congress would need to legalize marijuana at the federal level. Until then, states continue to act.
Pennsylvania is slowly climbing the marijuana legalization ladder. In 2016, the commonwealth legalized medical marijuana — the first dispensary opened in 2018.
The experience of medical legalization in Pennsylvania shows that there is a real demand for marijuana — nearly 200,000 people registered as patients with the state’s Department of Health. Public support for recreational use is also strong: A poll from March showed that 59% of Pennsylvanians support recreational legalization of marijuana.
Marijuana should not be legalized because it is popular. Pennsylvania should legalize recreational marijuana because it is the right thing to do.
Marijuana prohibition has had a devastating impact on people of color -- nationally, across the commonwealth, and in Philadelphia which decriminalized it in 2014. While marijuana has become more mainstream, black and brown people continue to be incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses. According to a BillyPenn analysis, despite its decriminalization in 2014, 85% of all marijuana purchase arrests in Philadelphia in 2018 were of black buyers.
Last week, Fetterman announced a new initiative to expedite expungements of marijuana convictions. Still, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 75 to 80 people are currently incarcerated in state prisons for marijuana offenses, which should be considered for immediate pardon.
Marijuana also has an impact on public health. Research indicates that marijuana legalization is associated with fewer opioids prescribed and fewer opioid deaths. Further, with the recent cases of a vaping-related lung illness tied to illicit THC products -- including a reported death in Pennsylvania -- there should be even more urgency to have a well-regulated supply of marijuana products to keep users safe.
Recreational marijuana would also bring economic opportunities. Growing marijuana could be an economic boost, especially for rural areas. Tax revenues from selling marijuana could be invested in communities across the state, including those most harmed by marijuana prohibition and the War on Drugs more generally.
We’ve come a long way from the days of “reefer madness” in our understanding of marijuana’s dangers and merits — but some Pennsylvanians are still not convinced. Republicans in the legislature have no desire to legalize -- forcing their constituents to forgo the economic, public health, and social justice benefits of marijuana legalization.