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Wolf again pushes for legalization of marijuana

Tom Wolf

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf convened a news conference this week to once again plead with lawmakers to look at the possibility of legalizing recreational marijuana in the state.

But despite the governor’s repeated pleas on the topic since he changed his stance on the issue last year, the Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature say that full legalization is not on the table for debate.

The governor focused part of Wednesday’s remarks on the advantages of decriminalization. One of the most notable bipartisan advances in the past two years in Harrisburg has been a series of criminal justice reforms that aim to allow people who have reformed and done their penance after committing a crime to have a chance to clear their record.

Wolf pitched decriminalization of cannabis as a logical extension of those criminal justice reforms.

“I can’t stress strongly enough the importance of decriminalizing cannabis use among adults,” he said. “Expunging these records will help thousands, thousands of Pennsylvanians who otherwise would never have interacted with the criminal justice system. It’ll help them get back on their feet. Second, it will remove a potentially insurmountable barrier to a successful future, let alone a job.”

He also noted that with the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the economy and the state looking at massive revenue shortfalls, the potential tax receipts that could be realized through full legalization might go a long way toward filling a portion of that gap.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused enormous disruptions to Pennsylvania’s economy, and with the additional federal aid stagnating in Congress, we need to do everything we can right here in Harrisburg right now, to help ourselves recover from this pandemic,” he said. “Some states that have legalized adult use cannabis have received literally hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue.”

Wolf declined to offer a specific estimate of how much full legalization might bring to the state’s coffers. But Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who joined the administration last year as a staunch advocate for legalization, noted that Auditor General Eugene DePasquale had previously calculated that $300 million a year would be a conservative estimate.

But a new report released Wednesday by the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market oriented public policy organization, argued that the proceeds would in fact be much less than that. The foundation’s Andrew Abramczyk wrote that $100 million to $200 million a year would be on the generous end of projections.

“Even if this money came with no new expenses, it would be less than 0.2% of the total state budget – enough to fund about one day of operations,” Abramczyk wrote. “The best comparables for a revenue estimate are Michigan and Illinois, which have similar populations to Pennsylvania and have both legalized recreational marijuana in the past year. They are earning an annualized $120 million and $137 million, respectively, based on monthly tax collections.”

Wolf insisted that not only was full legalization necessary, but that there’s a certain urgency to getting it approved given that New Jersey voters will face a referendum on the issue in November.

“If they vote to legalize it, we will have given up the opportunity to gain the revenue that will definitely go across the border to New Jersey,” he said. “Pennsylvanians are not the only ones who see the benefits of legalizing recreational marijuana.”

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