There is perhaps no higher-ranking advocate of recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania than Eugene DePasquale.
The state’s auditor general made headlines last March when he issued a formal recommendation for legalization, arguing then that move could generate at least $200 million per year for Pennsylvania’s general fund.
Gov. Tom Wolf leans more toward statewide decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, his spokesman said last week, and keeping his focus on development of the state’s fledgling medical cannabis program. Legislators, meanwhile, have proposed two bills that remain bogged down in committee.
DePasquale, meanwhile, remains steadfast in his support — for budgetary reasons, to be sure, but he also sees other benefits: Job creation, fewer arrests and prosecutions, and an end to the stigma decriminalization has created.
“I just think this would be a much more sane way to handle marijuana policy than we have been doing,” DePasquale said in an interview with the Times Leader this week.
States to emulate
The auditor general’s $200 million estimate from last year may well be a conservative one. To put it in perspective, DePasquale likes to talk about Colorado.
When he released his Pennsylvania estimate early last year, the most recently available annual tax revenue figures for Colorado were around $130 million.
Legal commercial sale of recreational marijuana began there in 2014, and $67.5 million was collected by the state in that year, state statistics show.
By the end of 2017, Colorado’s taxes, license, and fee revenue increased to $247.4 million. From January through May of this year, Colorado collected $109 million.
Colorado has 5.6 million residents, compared with Pennsylvania’s 12.8 million — a statistic not lost on DePasquale.
Colorado is not alone.
Washington state (pop. 7.4 million) collected a total of $319 million in legal marijuana income and license fees in fiscal year 2017, state records show.
Such numbers give DePasquale optimism about what revenues could look like here.
“We’re a much larger state,” he said.
Statistics provided by DePasquale’s office suggest the average marijuana arrest and court case costs taxpayers $2,200. Using that math, the office estimates, the City of Philadelphia saved $4.1 million between 2014, when possession of small amounts of marijuana were decriminalized, and last spring.
He noted that there has been a disproportionate number of marijuana arrests among the African-American community, and that legalization would help eliminate that stigma.
Is there a downside?
As the Times Leader reported on Tuesday as part of this series, smoking marijuana can be detrimental to lung health, medical experts say, while there are also neurological concerns and possible cognitive effects — especially among young users whose brains are still developing — as well as poisoning risks with some edible cannabis products.
DePasquale acknowledged the substance comes with health concerns, but he also argued that a regulated industry for adult consumers would be safer than the illicit trade that has been flourishing for years.
As with other regulated substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, DePasquale suggested it would remain for adults to decide whether, when and how to partake based on their understanding of the risks.
“I’m not suggesting this is the equivalent of a Quinoa salad,” he said.
Change in the wind
In a state where alcohol sales have been more tightly regulated than in many others, DePasquale also recognizes that the question of how recreational marijuana might be sold someday could prove a thorny political issue.
“I would lean more toward private businesses, but let the governor and the General Assembly bat this one around,” he said.
It could be some time before those branches of Pennsylvania’s government have anything to bat around.
Two decriminalization bills, House Bill 195 and House Bill 928, have been proposed, but despite some bipartisan support — particularly with HB 928 — both have been languishing before the House Judiciary Committee since last year.
“I’m not getting a lot of good vibes out of the Capitol dome,” DePasquale said.
Viewing the issue at arm’s length, however, he believes the real push for change could be generated at the grassroots level, where popular support for legalization is steadily increasing.
“I’ve spoken with a lot of people in my travels across Pennsylvania — whether we’re talking about Hillary voters or Trump voters, liberals or conservatives, the feeling is remarkably consistent,” DePasquale said.
“This is one of those issues in which I think the public is ahead of the politicians.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This was the last part of a four-day series, but watch for additional recreational marijuana coverage in the months to come.