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Toke One Up … For the Kids

As Saturday night’s raid in Frankford makes plain, marijuana is still illegal in Pennsylvania. Here’s why it shouldn’t be

As Saturday night’s raid in Frankford makes plain, marijuana is still illegal in Pennsylvania. Here’s why it shouldn’t be

I’m going to preface this with a statement: So willing am I to champion this cause that I will forever mark myself as a total square on the internet. I have never smoked weed, never eaten a pot brownie, never been hotboxed. I get nervous if someone whips out a dimebag. I’m outing myself as the worst person to bring to your party. Why? To show you how sincere I am about this position I’m about to take.

Pennsylvania should legalize marijuana to help subsidize the crumbling educational infrastructures of its major cities and install pre-K in Philadelphia. Doing so would render the soda tax—or any other potential tax that disproportionately affects the poor—pointless, and would democratize the burden of educational taxation.

Marijuana. It’s such a painfully obvious answer to one of the woes of the commonwealth that it almost feels stupid to write it. This isn’t 2005, a decade away from the first states and municipalities in the United States biting the bullet and legalizing weed; it’s not some distant, European fantasy for Americans to be able to buy some herb with the full blessing of Uncle Sam. Popular sentiment is vastly in support of legalization—57 percent of Americans support legalization versus 32 percent who favor total illegalization, according to Pew.

The revenues that legalized marijuana taxes generate may not make the soda tax look paltry, per se, but they would come close. Mayor Kenney’s administration has said the soda tax will bring in more than $90 million annually, while the office of the Auditor General of Pennsylvania estimates a recreational weed tax could bring in $200 million across the state. 

What’s more: Fifty-five million adults use marijuana, more than half of whom are parents, according to a Yahoo!/Marist Poll, and 56 percent of people think smoking weed is socially acceptable. (From the same poll: 6 percent of people keep their weed in the bathroom.)

We are there, at least when it comes to social acceptance, and the benefits are myriad: lower arrest counts, the obliteration of an illegal trade, general chillness and, of course, the dankest of all marijuana legalization bennies—sales taxes, happily paid, by citizens all across the socioeconomic spectrum.

The revenues that legalized marijuana taxes generate may not make the soda tax look paltry, per se, but they would come close. Mayor Kenney’s administration has said the soda tax will bring in more than $90 million annually, while the office of the Auditor General of Pennsylvania estimates a recreational weed tax could bring in $200 million across the state. And they would eliminate the nasty elements of classism and paternalism from the mix.

Seven states across the country have already legalized the sale of marijuana. Washington, a state with a population of 5 million people fewer than Pennsylvania, brought in $77 million in taxes from legalized weed in fiscal year 2016.

And how about Denver, the unofficial weed capital of these United States? The city, in fiscal year 2016, took in about $30 million in taxes from marijuana sales. And the revenues are increasing annually, for reasons that have benefits well beyond just weed sales: People want to come to a city where they can buy a variety of bud from a well-appointed store, rather than an underground dealer. And they want to be in a place where they can witness the tangible good that the revenues from the weed they buy are doing; in Denver, that money has been spent on everything from education to law enforcement, and locals love it.

If we are taxing something to help fund a facet of the Philadelphia public sector that will surely be growing—like early education—wouldn’t we want to tax an item or industry that we’re not trying to discourage the growth of, like soda sales? Soda sales trend downward in cities with soda taxes. Weed tax revenues, on the other hand, trend upward annually in cities where it is legal.

Imagine making that happen in a city with a population way more than twice the size of Denver’s? One that has a massive college population and an already-remarkably laissez-faire view of marijuana? The revenue generated from marijuana sales could easily cover universal pre-K and fixes to the Philadelphia public school system. The potential revenues should have Pennsylvania politicians drooling.

Instead, marijuana in Pennsylvania is stubbornly illegal. On Saturday night, Philly police raided activist (and former Libertarian mayoral candidate) N.A. Poe’s “Philly Smoke Sessions” party, to which hundreds of people had bought tickets for the chance to smoke, digest and purchase weed in a Frankford warehouse. Police detained 19 people on various charges, and released another 175. They also confiscated 50 pounds of pot, $50,000 in cash, four guns and about 100 pounds of edibles.

Mayor Kenney later called the raid a “little overkill,” a description Dan Gross, a founder of local cannabis culture and news site Elevated Nation, agrees with. He says it’s pretty clear that taxing weed would be far better than spending city money trying to stop its use by folks like Poe.

“I would think that if you snapped your fingers and, poof, weed were legal in Philadelphia—sold all over the city, and taxed at a decent rate—that the volume of sales and the amount of money involved would generate way more than the soda tax,” Gross says. “For example: Before the soda tax, say a liter of coke cost $2. Okay. An ounce of weed might be $300. So that’s already the equivalent of 150 two-liter bottles of soda.”

The way we’ve decided to pay for our educational ambitions amounts to as much of a capitalist social experiment as it does a forthright classist injustice: The city is taxing soda, which is enjoyed regularly by 46 percent of non-white folks and 45 percent of compared to 27 percent of white people and 20 percent of high-income adults, according to Gallup. The soda tax is a large-scale economic experiment conducted at the expense of minorities and lower-income Philadelphia; a tax to get pre-Kindergarten off the ground might be a necessary evil, sure, but at this point it’s a necessary evil unnecessarily inflicted on those who can afford it least. Imagine if, instead, we taxed the one thing that people from all races and classes across Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania, from the hoagie cook to the Rittenhouse Square ad executive, consumes: dope.

Legalizing weed could allow for our grand aspirations, free pre-K included, without the classist tax policies we have now. If only some Harrisburg prudes could chill out and just let Pennsylvanians roast a bone.

It doesn’t even make much sense in the long run! Similar soda-taxing plans around the country have their roots in trying to stop mostly low-income folks from drinking sugary beverages as a supposed social good. If we are taxing something to help fund a facet of the Philadelphia public sector that will surely be growing—like early education—wouldn’t we want to tax an item or industry that we’re not trying to discourage the growth of, like soda sales? (Or cigarette sales, for that matter, which are also taxed for schools.) Soda sales trend downward in cities with soda taxes. Weed tax revenues, on the other hand, trend upward annually in cities where it is legal.

How likely is this to happen? Total legalization of marijuana in the state is up to Harrisburg, and it’s probably a stretch to assume that a cadre of politicians who won’t raise the minimum wage to something livable will legalize a recreational drug—especially as things are likely to get dicier nationally for the weed legalization cause, under new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has promised to revive the vastly unpopular and mostly ineffective 90’s-era war on drugs. A weed crackdown and national campaign to vilify marijuana could render any gains in the past decade completely moot.

On the other hand, some national advocates say Pres. Trump’s tenure may lead to a legalization whirlwind, as states race to protect their citizens from federal prosecution. And Pennsylvania is partway there already. After six long years of political wrangling, Pennsylvania last year became one of 28 states that have legalized medical cannabis. The legislation—pushed by State Senator Daylin Leach—created one of the best programs in the country, according to advocates, with some 20 different illnesses qualifying for medical marijuana. The state received about 900 applications from potential growers and dispensers by its deadline in March. The drug should be available to certain patients in early 2018.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro have both said in the past that they favor full legalization of recreational weed. And Mayor Kenney told The Inquirer yesterday that the “real solution” to Saturday’s raid in Frankford is following Colorado’s example. But the road is not likely to be easy. Even weed-friendly states like Colorado were fraught with legal challenges and procedural dawdling. It took the Centennial state more than a decade to legalize recreational marijuana after allowing for the sale of medical weed in 2000—and they were arguably the most progressive state, with regards to cannabis, for 30 years.

That’s too bad. Because legalizing weed could allow for our grand aspirations, free pre-K included, without the classist tax policies we have now. If only some Harrisburg prudes could chill out and just let Pennsylvanians roast a bone.

And I don’t even like weed, yo.

Header photo by Martin Alonso via Flickr

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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