What should marijuana legalization look like in Pennsylvania?

This article originally appeared in our newsletter.

Let’s talk about marijuana. Specifically the governor’s push to legalize it here. He tweeted last week: “Tell your legislator to get a bill legalizing adult-use marijuana to my desk. I’d be happy to sign it into law.”

Pennsylvania is facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall this year, with widespread business closures and record job losses continuing alongside the pandemic.

How would recreational marijuana help? The governor wants to use legal pot revenue to bankroll COVID-19 relief and more. Pennsylvania’s own auditor general estimated that legal pot for adults (21 and older) would generate $580 million annually for Pennsylvania coffers. For context: Washington collected $319 million from legal pot sales in 2019 and Colorado collected $266 million — both states with much smaller populations than ours.

There is no doubt this is a bona fide cash crop — just look at the huge sums already being spent on medical marijuana here.

So, yes, legal pot would certainly help Pennsylvania financially this year or any year really — budget gaps are nothing new in Harrisburg. The option is also supported by a majority of Pennsylvanians.

But there’s another question we should be asking: What will or should legal pot look like in Pennsylvania?

Should Pennsylvania adopt a first-of-its-kind state-run system, like the one proposed here, with sales of legal pot happening in state-run stores, not third-party dispensaries? Should it get sales going more quickly by diverting a portion of its existing medical marijuana supply, like Michigan did? Should Pennsylvania allow marijuana users to grow their own (something a number of Pa. medical patients are already lobbying for given the high prices, spotty supply, and powerful corporate interests controlling the market)?

We asked Gov. Wolf’s office to share his vision for legalization. They said: “The governor looks forward to working with the legislature on details but has not presented any specifics or preferences regarding legalization.” (Leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature seem less excited, for the record.)

So, what do legalization advocates want? Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, gave us this list of priorities for new adult-use programs. It includes avoiding excessively high taxes, allowing homegrows for personal use, barring employers from firing or not hiring someone for off-the-job cannabis consumption, and “automatic reviews of past criminal records and for the expungement of those records” in cases where the underlying offense would no longer be a crime.

That last part is particularly important because the enforcement of existing marijuana laws results in around 20,000 arrests in the commonwealth each year. Advocates argue that flipping the legalization switch without addressing the consequences of criminalization would be both amoral and a dereliction of duty.

Gov. Wolf seems to agree. While he’s keeping an open mind on the mechanics of legalization, he says a recreational marijuana bill should include policies that “restore justice for individuals convicted of marijuana-related offenses.” He’s also said he wants to earmark revenue from legal pot sales for small-business grants, restorative justice programs, and more.

Those with low-level marijuana convictions can seek pardons from state officials right now without a fee.

But addressing prohibition’s legacy will be a lengthy effort without a recreational bill speeding that process up. And while the legalization discussion drags on, Black people in Pennsylvania remain three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.

What happens next — or at all — with legal marijuana is up to state lawmakers. But while previous efforts went nowhere, there is growing pressure on the financial front, courtesy of neighboring New Jersey. Advocates hope that pressure becomes a tipping point.

We’ll keep you posted.

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