By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery often compares Pennsylvania’s marijuana laws to the alcohol prohibition laws of the early 20th century.
He says it’s a culture war that one day will end. Maybe sooner than one might think.
“I’m sure that in 10 years, we will look back on prohibition as a quaint relic of the past,” Leach said.
Leach, one of the state’s most progressive lawmakers, introduced legislation to legalize marijuana use for adults age 21 and older. Leach’s legislation envisions marijuana sold alongside alcohol in state liquor stores and beer distributors, with production, distribution and sale regulated in a similar way as alcohol.
Leach made the social and economic case for marijuana legalization at a Monday afternoon news conference, where he said that keeping marijuana illegal makes criminals out of people who “smoke a plant.”
Leach said keeping marijuana illegal is irrational on several levels, comparing it to alcohol and tobacco that can be deadly but are legal. Marijuana, conversely, is prescribed medically in 18 states.
“Like the original prohibition, the prohibition of marijuana has resulted in damages far in excess of what the actual substance we’re controlling could ever do,” he said. “This is a cruel, irrational policy that we’ve had for 75 years without revisiting.”
But in Pennsylvania – especially this session – Leach’s idea is little more than a pipe dream.
Janet Kelley, deputy director of communications for Gov. Tom Corbett, said he would not sign a bill legalizing marijuana.
“Governor Corbett has personally witnessed the devastation of illegal drugs on Pennsylvania communities throughout his career,” Kelley said in an email to PA Independent. “He does not believe that loosening restrictions on illegal drugs is in the interest of public safety.”
Leach said that he didn’t think it was rational for the governor to “keep people in prison or threat of prison for marijuana” while offering up a proposal to increase the number of places that can sell alcohol, referring to Corbett’s latest liquor privatization push.
Leach said the administration is leaving millions of dollars on the table.
The state spends about $325 million a year prosecuting nearly 25,000 marijuana arrests, according federal statistics from 2006. If the drug were legalized, Leach said they would not only save that money, but make additional millions from taxing marijuana — at least $25 million a year, he said.
Opponents to legalization point out that social costs could outweigh the benefits. The Office of National Drug Control Policy compares the situation to alcohol, which they say costs more than it takes in.
“Federal excise taxes collected on alcohol in 2007 totaled around $9 billion; states collected around $5.5 billion,” reads the federal government fact sheet on legalization. “Combined, these amounts are less than 10 percent of the estimated $185 billion in alcohol‐related costs to health care, criminal justice, and the workplace in lost productivity.”
The office bolsters the drug’s danger by citing negative effects of marijuana as “dependence, respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance, and impaired cognitive and immune system functioning.”
Leach doesn’t necessarily have public opinion on his side. The latest Franklin and Marshall College poll found that 55 percent of polled Pennsylvania voters oppose marijuana legalization, compared to 36 percent in support.
However, legalization marijuana for medical use has widespread bipartisan support. The poll found 82 percent of polled voters “strongly” or somewhat” favor allowing adults to use marijuana if a doctor recommends it. About 76 percent of polled voters said the same in 2006. The poll surveyed 622 Pennsylvania voters between Jan. 29 and Feb. 3, with a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.
Terry Madonna, executive director of the Center for Politics and Public Opinion at the college, called the support “overwhelming.” But without any real legislative push, the concept wouldn’t go far.
“To do this it take the leadership from the Legislature and the governor to endorse it,” he said, “and I haven’t heard that to be the case.”
Leach said while he supports medical marijuana proposals, he does not think that solves the problem of “marijuana prohibition.”
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the Washington, D.C.,-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has lobbied on behalf of state and federal policy changes for decades.
He said seeing a legalization proposal pop up in Pennsylvania was surprising, but that it’s happening more and more — especially since voters in Washington state and Colorado approved legalization in a referendum in the November 2012 election.
“We did not have the commonwealth of Pennsylvania on our radar scope at all,” St. Pierre said. “We think that’s indicative of how politically salient the issue for marijuana reform is today.”
Ten states have legalization bills pending, compared to one state five years ago, St.Pierre said. And a federal discussion began on Capitol Hill last week with pro-marijuana proposals from Reps. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.
Their bills would create federal laws regulating production and retail sale for marijuana in states that have already legalization consumption for medical or recreational uses.
“Mr. Leach may be slightly ahead of the curve in Pennsylvania, but he’s pretty much on the curve nationally,” St. Pierre said.
Contact Melissa Daniels at [email protected]