Local state representatives are wary of a recently introduced proposal that would legalize cannabis for adult recreational use in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t think this is the time to be legalizing more drugs,” state Rep. Ryan Warner said, adding that lawmakers did have the option to study the impact of recreational marijuana in states where it has been legalized.
Recreational cannabis is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, and medical cannabis is legal in 31 states and the District of Columbia.
But while Warner, R-Perryopolis, doesn’t think the state legislature should take on legalizing recreational marijuana, he along with state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, and state Rep. Matt Dowling, R-Uniontown, said they would consider a referendum, or direct vote by the electorate, on the matter.
Their remarks came after state Rep. Jake Wheatley, a Pittsburgh Democrat, proposed a bill that would legalize the possession of cannabis products such as edibles, and up to six cannabis plants, but not more than three mature plants that are flowering. The legislation, which does not include public use of marijuana or driving under its influence, has been referred to the House Health Committee. Wheatley also proposed the release of those who have been jailed for crimes associated with marijuana.
A 2017 Franklin & Marshall College Poll found that 56 percent of Pennsylvania voters support marijuana legalization, a 16-point increase from the previous year. A majority of independents and Democrats, 75 percent and 61 percent, respectively, supported legalization, but only 44 percent of Republicans did, according to the poll.
The bill faces a steep challenge in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Snyder said she thought it best to keep the focus on continued implementation of the state’s medical marijuana program.
Dowling noted that cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, meaning that it is considered to have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Dowling added that that classification could create complications if the state were to legalize recreational marijuana, including how money collected from drug sales are deposited since most banks refuse to take money from marijuana sales as federal authorities still view the drug as an illegal narcotic.
The Washington Post reported earlier this year that 70 percent of marijuana businesses in states where recreational cannabis is legal such as Colorado, California and Oregon run on cash.
Dowling said that he doesn’t know whether marijuana is a “gateway drug,” meaning it may lead to the use of increasingly addictive drugs, or whether its legalization would reduce local dependence on heroin and other opioids.
“I think both arguments warrant investigation,” Dowling said.
Rep. Bud Cook, R-West Pike Run Township, said at a recent debate at the Monongahela Fire Department Social Hall that he lands “somewhere in the middle” on the recreational marijuana debate, noting he has many unanswered questions.
“Medical marijuana, not a problem,” Cook said. “But we’re already dealing with alcoholism and opioid addiction. Do we want to introduce a third gateway into potential substance abuse?”
Rep. Justin Walsh, R-Rostraver Township, could not be reached for comment.
As regulated under state Act 16 of 2016, medical marijuana can be prescribed to patients statewide if they have a terminal illness or if they suffer from 21 significant conditions, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Snyder and Warner voted in favor of Act 16. Having taken office in 2017, Dowling said he supports medical cannabis in certain forms, noting that he doesn’t yet have a definitive sense of what its local impact has been.
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in July that the state is missing out in $581 million per year in revenue by not regulating and taxing marijuana, assuming that Pennsylvania taxed the growth, cultivation and sale of marijuana at 35 percent.
“That’s money to balance our budget, strengthen our economy, bolster our workforce and improve our schools,” Wheatley said in August, referencing DePasquale’s estimate of $581 million per year available if cannabis is regulated and taxed.
“That’s not enough of a reason to go down that path,” Snyder said of DePasquale’s estimate.
Dowling argued that it’s irresponsible to rely on “sin taxes,” whether they are taxes on tobacco, gambling or other vices, because they are fluctuating sources of income for the state and rely on those who use the goods being taxed.
Wheatley argued that legalization would save taxpayers millions in enforcement costs while freeing up crime-fighting resources to combat serious, violent crime.