Ted S. Warren / AP Photo
Ted S. Warren / AP Photo
One would think the two senators who championed legalizing medical marijuana in Pennsylvania would be on the same page in their reaction to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desire to consider ending the prohibition on recreational marijuana.
But they are not.
Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, is not a fan of the idea right now, saying he fears it will distract from the state’s nascent medical marijuana program. Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, meanwhile, plans to introduce legislation in January that would legalize it for adult recreational use.
Legislative reaction to hearing the recently re-elected governor shift gears from his pre-election view of the issue that he wasn’t ready to sign or promote it to now is the time to have a conversation about it signaled how controversial this would be.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, called Wolf’s interest in looking into legalizing marijuana as “reckless and irresponsible.” A spokesman for House Republicans said legalizing a Schedule 1 drug is not appropriate. Attempts to get reaction on Thursday from Democratic leaders in both chambers was unsuccessful.
Support for the proposal is not expected to fall along party lines. Rep. Barry Jozwiak, R-Berks County, last year offered legislation to reduce the penalties for marijuana possession in response to a prosecutor’s concern about how minor drug cases were consuming too much of officers’ and the court’s time. While he wasn’t supportive of full legalization, the argument he raised could jar some of his colleagues into thinking legalization is the way to go.
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has been calling for it since March 2017. Polls have backed him up. And Wolf’s incoming lieutenant governor John Fetterman is also a proponent. And if that’s not enough, the tax revenue it is expected to generate adds to the lure.
DePasquale in July estimated legalizing and taxing marijuana would generate $581 million a year for the state. But House Republican Steve Miskin said, “Is the drive to spend more tax dollars really a proper justification to legalize a drug?”
Folmer’s concerns take a different bent.
“There’s several unanswered questions that I have about it,” Folmer said. “We don’t know enough about it. What I want is for Pennsylvania to be a leader in research because we’ll start understanding this plant better.”
Folmer said a greater understanding of cannabis he believes could help bring down the cost of health care and get sick people back into the workforce sooner. He fears legalizing it for recreational use could shift focus away from that research that makes Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis law unique and could increase broader knowledge about the plant.
“I’m not opposed to cannabis. It has been for way too long misunderstood,” he said. “We need to focus on medicinal right now.”
Leach, however, said if done right, medical and recreational marijuana programs could be more symbiotic than conflicting. In fact, he said it could improve the research because of the availability of different strains of marijuana that would be available.
He dismisses Folmer’s concern about it being a distraction to marijuana research, saying researchers won’t be studying how much fun people can have under its influence but rather what it can do for cancer, diabetes and pain.
Leach said that having the governor now willing to look at ending the prohibition on recreational marijuana removes a major impediment that existed before to the prospects of it happening here actually gives it momentum.
Added to that is the anticipated addition of New York and New Jersey soon joining the 10 other states and the District of Columbia that legalized it, which is why Wolf said on Thursday the time is right for Pennsylvania to give it a look.
If these neighboring states legalize it, Leach said it could lead to people who want it for medicinal reasons to drive across the border to other states to obtain it rather than jumping through the hoops that Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana protocol requires.
Then there’s the money aspect that DePasquale raised. Leach said similar concerns about losing tax revenue to other states is what drove the desire to open up casinos in Pennsylvania.
“While I would like to think we’re going to pass it because it’s the right thing to do and it’s a noble cause and things like that, I understand money plays a big part in it,” Leach said. “New York and New Jersey definitely put the ball in our court so I think this is a propitious time for the governor to say what he said.”
But Corman sees little good to come from recreational marijuana legalization.
He called it “a mind-altering narcotic which will harm our youth, as it is a depressant and a gateway drug to other illegal substances.” He went on in a statement to say it has the makings of a catastrophe when you add that to “a lack of credible research on the societal costs and opposition from prosecutors, the medical community and law enforcement.”
“It sounds like a lot of what he said is from watching ‘Reefer Madness’ too many times,” Leach said.
He said if Corman met with people who are well-versed on the issue, he might think differently.
Not all law enforcement, judges and doctors are against it. Police officers have told him that they would prefer it be legalized so they can focus their efforts on serious crimes. As for marijuana being a gateway drug, Leach argues there is no scholarship to back that up.
What’s more, he maintains there are positive societal impacts that have occurred in states where it is legal – drunk driving is down, domestic violence reduced and young people entering in the criminal justice system declined.
“I’m hoping that he and other people who have doubts – it’s fine to have doubts and fine to have questions – but I hope they have an open mind,” Leach said. “Let’s think about this.”