Brigid Says: Time for Pennsylvania to take long look at legalizing pot

Brigid Edmunds-Lawrence - Brigid Says

Now that I’m done writing about my last name, let’s talk about marijuana.

It’s definitely a divisive issue, but one that the state can no longer ignore with what’s going on around the Northeast.

In case you haven’t noticed, the Times Leader is in the middle of a multi-day series about Pennsylvania and legalizing recreational marijuana.

Last week, the New York State Health Department announced they were going to recommend “a regulated marijuana program” be introduced in the state. In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo commissioned the health department to do a study, and the department said “the pros of a regulated program outweigh the cons.”

Massachusetts has issued its first business license for recreational marijuana.

Our northern neighbor, Canada, is on the horizon of nation-wide legalization.

And with the list of states that have legalized recreational marijuana growing, as well as the countless cities that have decriminalized the drug, the national discussion has changed from if legalization happens to when it will happen.

So, where does Pennsylvania fit into the equation?

We have legalized medical marijuana, which is definitely a step in the right direction, as well eight cities that have passed decriminalization ordinances. That doesn’t mean we should stop there.

There tends to be a stigma around marijuana legalization – a belief that our cities and towns would turn into nothing but people walking around stoned. And that just seems off-base.

We already have substances that alter our bodies and minds on the market – alcohol and tobacco.

“No one should spend time in a jail cell because they like cannabis over alcohol,” Les Stark, executive director of Keystone Cannabis Coalition, told me last week.

His argument isn’t invalid. We found a profitable way to regulate and tax other substances which at one point in our history were also prohibited.

These substances contribute to our economy every day. And, to put it delicately, the state could use some extra cash.

Pennsylvania Auditor General, Eugene DePasquale has come out as a huge supporter of legalization. He has talked extensively about the positive impact it would have on the state’s economy.

“I very conservatively estimate potential revenues from regulating and taxing marijuana in Pennsylvania to be about $200 million a year,” he wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017.

“The longer we wait, the more we will miss out on new business development, good-paying jobs for Pennsylvanians, and tax revenues to support services for residents.”

However, aside from DePasquale’s passionate pitch, many state lawmakers don’t think it’s the time.

State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, said the state should focus on the medical program and wait for research and the federal government.

“Medical marijuana is still being implemented, so we lack the body of research and experience on which to make informed judgments,” she said.

“We are also aggressively overhauling state laws, regulations and practices to combat the opioid crisis that is devastating communities. It seems to send a very conflicting public message to curtail one set of substances while moving to legalize another. If at some point the federal government removes marijuana from the list of controlled substances, then perhaps the issue may be looked at differently.”

Baker makes an excellent and thoughtful point about research and the classification of the drug.

However, her suggestion that legalization would negatively impact the opioid crisis is ill-informed. Studies are showing that in states where marijuana is legal, the rate of opioid prescriptions and daily overdoses are falling.

“We do know that cannabis is much less risky than opiates, as far as likelihood of dependency,” W. David Bradford, a professor of public policy at the University of Georgia, told NPR in April.

That’s not to say that more research isn’t a good idea, but we need to seriously listen to the findings of medical professionals across the country.

And while waiting for the federal government to declassify the drug would stall Pennsylvania’s opportunity, there is nothing stopping the state and Gov. Tom Wolf from following New York’s lead by commissioning a research study.

The Pennsylvania State Health Department doesn’t necessarily see a reason to get involved in the discussion, though.

“Recreational marijuana is not a health issue, so the Department of Health has no comment or role in the possibility of legalization,” Nate Wardle, press secretary for the Department of Health, said.

However, with the moves other states, especially New York, are making, the health department might want to reconsider its stance.

At least someone other than just I should be talking about it.

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Brigid Edmunds-Lawrence

Brigid Says

Brigid Brigid Edmunds-Lawrence writes a column for the Times Leader each Monday. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper. Reach Brigid at 570-991-6113 or on Twitter @brigidedmunds

Brigid Brigid Edmunds-Lawrence writes a column for the Times Leader each Monday. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper. Reach Brigid at 570-991-6113 or on Twitter @brigidedmunds