Photo by U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

The statewide drug reform movement took a few halting steps forward last week on the floor of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, as Gov. Tom Wolf officially endorsed legalizing recreational marijuana for use among adults.

“We now know the majority of Pennsylvanians are in favor of legalization,” said Wolf, “and that includes me.”

The announcement came on the heels of a report from Lt. Gov. John Fetterman detailing his 98-day Cannabis Listening tour.

Advocates greeted the news with enthusiasm, even as they acknowledge that true reform may still be a long way off.

“We’re very very excited that the governor took the result of Lieutenant Governor Fetterman’s listening tour seriously,” said Patrick Nightingale, a defense attorney and head of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

What happens next, and what would our local market even look like?

What are the current laws?

Pennsylvania is one of 22 states where medical marijuana is legal, but recreational use remains a criminal offense. According to state laws, even minor possessions can result in a 30-day prison sentence.

What comes next?

The response from the assembly’s Republican majority was swift and not surprising.

“Our caucus has no plans or interest in legalizing recreational marijuana,” the House Republican leadership said in a joint statement last week.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to win over those skeptics,” Nightingale told NEXTpittsburgh. Nonetheless, reform advocates are doing their best to seize the moment.

Rep. Jake Wheatley, Jr. (D-Allegheny) released a statement praising the move and touting his own legalization bill, which he introduced in February this year. In addition, the senator posted an online petition to build popular support for reform.

“Legalization would save taxpayers millions in enforcement costs while freeing up crime-fighting resources to combat serious, violent crime. Prohibiting recreational use of marijuana does nothing to meaningfully reduce access to this relatively safe drug,” said Wheatley. “On the other hand, continuing prohibition allows organized crime — for whom marijuana is a major money-maker — to flourish.”

What would a legal weed economy even look like?

As many advocates note, legalization efforts in Colorado, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere have led to a windfall in new tax revenues, which the states have applied to critical social issues.

In a report released in July of 2018,  Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale estimated that taxing recreational marijuana at the point of cultivation and sale would bring in roughly $581 million per year in new tax revenue.

Building off these models, Wheatley’s bill would use cannabis tax revenue to invest in affordable housing, after-school programs and student debt forgiveness. Additionally, the bill would create financial incentives for manufacturers to partner with Pennsylvania farmers.

Not to get all “Reefer Madness,” but what are the risks?

As Nightingale explained to NEXTpittsburgh, there is significant variation among the details of different state laws, and there are more than a few cautionary tales to consider.

In states like Michigan and Massachusetts, there is no limit on the number of cultivation licenses. But in Washington state and California, laws capping the number of cultivation licenses have allowed a small number of large growers to effectively monopolize the industry, stacking up licenses and squeezing out smaller producers.

While the challenges are real, Nightingale said they are easily managed with the right laws.

“The examples that we have from other states reinforce the idea that we can do this responsibly,” said Nightingale. “Reform is coming. It is inevitable.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.