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Find out who your state representatives are and reach out. Tell them you want to see legalized marijuana: an end to criminalizing personal choices, and a boost to our state’s bottom line.


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From Grunge: The Controversial History Of Marijuana Legalization


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Why We Should Legalize Marijuana in PA

A bipartisan bill in the state senate would legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana. Here’s why PA should join NJ, DE, NY, and 20 other states that’ve done the same

Why We Should Legalize Marijuana in PA

A bipartisan bill in the state senate would legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana. Here’s why PA should join NJ, DE, NY, and 20 other states that’ve done the same

In 2014, then-Philadelphia City Councilmember Jim Kenney passed a law decriminalizing marijuana possession for up to 30 grams. Before that law was passed, people faced criminal charges for marijuana possession. But Kenney’s law changed possession to a civil violation — a $25 fine — instead of a criminal offense.

Two years later, former Governor Tom Wolf signed a bill legalizing medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. By 2018, Pennsylvania had ended automatic six-month license suspensions for possessing weed while driving. Fast forward to 2020, across the Delaware River, New Jersey voters legalized recreational marijuana.

In Jersey, you can smoke pot as casually as smoking a cigarette. So where does that leave us here in PA? Behind New Jersey and 23 other states. Here in the Keystone State, we’re still arresting people for possession — 13,000 were arrested in 2021 alone. But that may change.

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania State Senators Sharif Street, a Democrat from Philadelphia, and Dan Laughlin, a Republican from Erie County, introduced legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania. (Full disclosure: I have worked as a legislative assistant to Sen. Street).

Now, I am not recommending using weed. As then-Councilmember Kenney said in 2014, “I’m not advocating anything in excess, except prayer.” But using pot is a personal choice adults should be able to make, and Street’s bill would allow folks to make that choice.

What the bill would do

Under Street’s bill, Pennsylvania would legalize people over age 21 possessing marijuana — and make it easier to expunge marijuana-related convictions. Cannabis consumers would also be protected from being discriminated against in housing, firearm ownership, and child custody cases.

But this legislation wouldn’t create a Wild West for weed. The bill would regulate the potency of edibles, addressing concerns about high THC concentrations in unregulated cannabis products. Other limits: Prohibiting dispensaries from marketing to children and outlawing cannabis consumption in schools, in prisons, while driving, and in childcare facilities, among others.

One of the most significant benefits of this bill is its 8 percent consumer tax and 5 percent retail tax on cannabis sales. According to the Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office, a cannabis tax could generate $400 million to $1 billion in revenue for Pennsylvania.

Why it’s necessary

For some, the urgency to legalize cannabis is confusing. But for Black people in communities ravaged by over-policing for possession, it’s easy to understand. When we criminalize behavior, it ought to be because the behavior causes serious harm. Marijuana, however, is easily the least harmful Schedule 1 drug. Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, LSD, meth, and ecstasy. Marijuana has no place on that list of hard drugs.

Although heavy users can suffer from cannabis use disorder (an inability to stop using) and lung illnesses (much like tobacco smokers), no one has been known to die from a marijuana overdose. Just the opposite has been true. The reason marijuana is legal for medical use is its proven health benefits for people with anxiety, pain, and epilepsy. Yet livelihoods are upended by the criminalized possession of weed.

Criminalizing this personal choice has done nothing but purvey mass incarceration and create unnecessary barriers to leading normal life while Pennsylvania sits on the sidelines as neighboring states enjoy the economic boost from the cannabis industry.

This is part of what motivated Street to introduce this bill, “It will no longer criminalize the personal choice of using a product we know is less dangerous than alcohol.” And criminal records ruin lives: Landlords conduct background checks on prospective tenants, so ex-offenders struggle to secure housing. Employers also conduct background checks, making it hard for ex-offenders to seek employment.

Senator Street also raises an overlooked issue: Patient accessibility. By legalizing marijuana, it’ll become more accessible, thus, more affordable for patients prescribed medical marijuana. Street’s bill touches on this, allowing medical marijuana cardholders to grow up to five marijuana flowers. Legalization would also destigmatize patients who need cannabis for treatment, allowing them to use it without fear of arrest or losing their job.

Why legalize recreational marijuana now?

As Street says, “Pennsylvania is surrounded by a sea of green. New York, New Jersey and others have legalized. We have already suffered significant losses in tax revenue and business opportunities and it will only get worse.”

More crucial, Street notes, is that Pennsylvanians still “risk arrest and potential felonies by purchasing cannabis out of state and returning to Pennsylvania with it.”

Chances of his recreational use bill passing are greater now because Democrats have the House majority, and Street introduced this bill with bipartisan support.

The other side

Opponents of recreational marijuana are concerned about increased traffic deaths, hospitalizations, and easy access for children, among other things that have been found in Colorado, where recreational cannabis has been legal since 2012.

But existing research supports the idea that cannabis is actually safer than other legal intoxicants. It is exceedingly rare — some say impossible — to die of a cannabis overdose. Whereas cigarette smoking causes 480,000 U.S. deaths annually and alcohol poisoning causes 140,000 deaths annually — not to mention thousands of drunk driving accidents. Having legal tobacco and alcohol consumption and illegal cannabis possession is wholly inconsistent. It’s safer to be a pothead than a smoker or alcoholic.

To the extent that cannabis consumption is a health risk, it’s largely because so much of it is unregulated. New synthetic forms of cannabis are too potent, verging on poisonous. I’ve heard some who lived through the 70s say today’s pot is not our grandparents’ reefer. It’s stronger.

According to the National Library of Medicine, weed’s potency has tripled. But, in states where it is legalized, there’s government oversight of what goes in it, how it’s produced, and, most importantly, the potency of the product.

The stigma on weed is misplaced. What’s plaguing our streets is cocaine, tranq dope, fentanyl, and heroin — New York Times Magazine called Kensington the “Walmart of Heroin” … how endearing. We should focus on fixing that instead of further delaying a $400 million to $1 billion economic boom.

Something for everyone

It’s worth noting that 66 percent of Pennsylvanians support recreational marijuana use. And it’s not surprising because everybody gets something from legalization. Democrats get the social justice win by curtailing mass incarceration, and Republicans get the $400 million to $1 billion boost in revenue. How’s that for fiscal responsibility?

Criminalizing this personal choice has done nothing but purvey mass incarceration and create unnecessary barriers to leading normal life while Pennsylvania sits on the sidelines as neighboring states enjoy the economic boost from the cannabis industry.

So, to prudes in the General Assembly with their knickers in a twist over marijuana legalization: Get over it, and pass it.

Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy professional, columnist, and Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College.



Photo by Budding . on Unsplash

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