HARRISBURG, Pa. (WENY) – April 20, or 4/20, is a day of celebration in the cannabis community. For many, the day is an opportunity to shed light on advocacy efforts nationwide, and for others— as you can imagine— to celebrate the day by partaking in other activities.
Legalizing adult use cannabis recreationally was proposed by Governor Josh Shapiro in his budget. With his budget proposal, and a Democratic-controlled House for the first time in over a decade, advocates are optimistic.
“We are closer than we have ever been before. I would be very surprised if we did not have some real progress and at least a bill get through the House, voted on by the House, and sent over to the Senate sometime in 2023 or early 2024,” said Patrick Nightingale, the Executive Director for the Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “We have a firm, bipartisan majority of support among Pennsylvania voters,” he added.
Legislation to legalize adult use marijuana has been proposed in Harrisburg for years. But this year, Nightingale says the finish line feels closer than it ever has.
“If your committee chair does not want the legislation to move through their committee, then it will die in committee. We now are past that point, at least in the House,” said Nightingale.
With neighbors like New York and New Jersey now legal, Nightingale says the Commonwealth is missing out, just as it did decades ago with gambling.
“Pennsylvanians were going to West Virginia and going to Atlantic City, and instead of capturing that money here in the commonwealth, those other states were benefiting from Pennsylvanians who opted to gamble. It’s the exact same issue with adult use cannabis,” said Nightingale. “In a regulated adult marketplace, you’re simply taking consumers from the dark and bringing them into the light. The opposition tends to pretend that Pennsylvanians aren’t already consuming cannabis. We’re already doing this,” he added.
In 2018, former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released a report indicating Pennsylvania is missing out on nearly $600 million annually in recreational revenue.
“I think that number is even higher when you factor in how much money you are no longer spending on what I call cops, courts and corrections. Anywhere between 200 and 300 million annually goes into the prohibition of cannabis,” said Nightingale.
But some Republicans say they’re dubious for several reasons.
“It’s business owners that are concerned about what those drug tests would look like and having people that are ready to work and serve in their businesses, its family members who have lost loved ones, who were initially attracted to cannabis and ended up unfortunately passing away because of overdoses. It’s talking with counselors, it’s talking with family members that have a lot of concerns about this. That’s what brings me pause on this,” said Rep. Clint Owlett (R-Tioga/Bradford).
Owlett says the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
“We also hear about other states that have tried to regulate it, overtax it. Then you see the black market of the product growing and you’re not really seeing the revenue anyways, but you’re seeing the cost of the social services. Just because other states are doing it doesn’t mean that Pennsylvania needs to do it,” said Owlett. “I would rather see healthy families, healthy kids, that are that are not utilizing a substance that tends to lead to other harder drugs,” Owlett added.
However, Nightingale disagrees with that argument, which he says is frequently tossed around by those opposed.
“They absolutely know there is no causal connection between cannabis use and moving on to hard drug use. But it’s so easy just to throw that out there. The statistics simply aren’t there. Prove it. Give us some data to prove it,” said Nightingale.
The decision to legalize recreational cannabis in the Commonwealth is largely up to the Republican-controlled Senate. There may not be burning support for legalization among Republicans in the upper chamber, but there is one GOP Senator who’s consistently advocated for it.
“Regulating adult use cannabis is the responsible thing to do from a next-step standpoint,” said Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) in a statement to WENY News. “According to a recent JAMA article, states that have a medical program have 25% fewer painkiller overdose deaths. While we have established a successful medical program that continues to be utilized, the fact remains that a large number of cannabis users do so recreationally without a valid medical card and obtain the product through illegal means. Regulation of this product, which has medically benefitted so many individuals, leads to safer consumption for users, a decline in the black-market drug trade, and a financial benefit to the General Fund,” Laughlin added.
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