During the last few years, encouraging signs of a rollback in the war on drugs have been seen in Pennsylvania.
In 2016, the commonwealth legalized medical marijuana.
Pittsburgh decriminalized small amounts of pot in 2015, and has continually lessened penalties for possession and use.
On the other hand, medical dispensaries are not yet set up and running in the state, and aren’t expected to be until 2018. The list of acceptable medical reasons for a marijuana prescription is short, and the methods of drug delivery limited.
And Pennsylvania’s political culture is not the kind that has been all that welcoming to marijuana legalization.
The state was carried by Donald Trump in 2016. Western Pennsylvania has for years been the kind of old-school Democratic haven that supported unions and police, not innovation and reform.
The Pennsylvania state auditor general has an idea that recreational marijuana could be part of a solution to the state’s budget woes.
According to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, “In 2016, taxing [recreational] marijuana brought in $220 million in Washington, $129 million in Colorado and $65.4 million in Oregon.”
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale suggested earlier this month that recreational marijuana might bring $200 million in tax revenue to Harrisburg.
Republican majorities in the state legislature, usually averse to raising taxes, are trying to work through the state’s lack of money. Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has put together a proposal — his third attempt — that wouldn’t increase broad-based taxes, would include some potentially contentious cuts to services such as police and community centers, and would increase state spending overall by $1 billion.
Marijuana might not fix all of Pennsylvania’s problems, but $200 million would certainly cut down on the spending decreases, and service cutting that the state would need to do otherwise. It would also put off the necessity of raising taxes on non-vice items.
In order to decrease the $3 billion deficit hanging over the state’s head last year, lawmakers added a dollar to the price of each pack of cigarettes last summer, making it one of the 10 most expensive places in the nation to be a smoker. The state optimistically hopes to bring in an additional $420 million a year.
While boosting taxes on cigarette smokers is now a routine way for governments to generate more revenue, dope smokers are not yet a mainstream source.
But DePasquale’s suggestion wasn’t laughed off the way it might have been a decade earlier.
Still, Wolf’s people say he wants to carefully and scientifically study the effects of marijuana before he OKs any major changes in the law. That likely means any weed tax is several years in the future, and probably under some other governor.
In spite of fears that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration might crack down on states that are exploring alternatives to the war on drugs, progress has been made.
Part of Wolf’s budget includes increased funding in an attempt to address opioid abuse. Some of this is encouraging, such as $10 million for law enforcement to carry Naloxone, the drug that reverses heroin overdoses. Other items include more than $3 million for additional diversion programs and drug courts.
This is the problem with trying to be as bold as DePasquale, a Democrat and former state legislator himself.
Opioids are a real problem. Drugs killed more than 3,500 people in Pennsylvania in 2015. More than half of those involved opioids, and 3 percent were a result of the new scare-drug fentanyl.
That fear of harder drugs makes comments such as those from Steve Miskin, press secretary for Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Dave Reed, tragically unsurprising. “While we’re appreciative of the auditor general’s multiple policy thoughts, as Pennsylvania and the nation is facing a serious drug problem, I’m not sure that legalizing a Schedule I narcotic is the best response,” he said.
That “Schedule I narcotic” he refers to is marijuana, classified in the same category as opioids, and for many years pursued just as vigorously by law enforcement.
Whether sincerely or cynically, the attitude that marijuana is on the same level as opioids persists at many levels of government and society. To legalize one would somehow be adding to the problems caused by the other, Miskin and others argue.
But Colorado, Washington and other states have legalized marijuana, and the result has been unremarkable. Police resources were reallocated, revenue came in and the world didn’t end.
Pennsylvania, in the meantime, will have to cut its budget in other ways while medical marijuana patients wait for their medicine and an untapped recreational market stays off the books.