HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) — New Jersey is on a path to become the fourth Northeastern state behind Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont to legalize recreational marijuana, after its voters approved a ballot referendum during last week’s election.
An important caveat: the move does not mean the cannabis industry can begin recreational sales right away. Rather, the referendum gives New Jersey state lawmakers the ability to begin establishing rules for the business.
Now, neighboring Pennsylvania faces a new dynamic if and when it considers whether to pursue its own recreational marijuana legalization measure.
Pennsylvania is one of 33 states that allows medical cannabis. The Republican-controlled state legislature is opposed to recreational use — despite repeated calls for its consideration by the Wolf administration.
Both Gov. Tom Wolf and Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman repeatedly brought up the impending weed vote in New Jersey during several press conferences on the subject in the fall.
“We either do it now and take advantage of what we can do here in Pennsylvania, or we’re going to lose a lot of revenue to our neighboring states,” Wolf said during an October press conference.
Fetterman, who has taken the lead role in championing the idea, said a newly-legal market across the border is likely to draw tax revenue and business opportunities away from Philadelphia and surrounding areas, some of the most populated in the commonwealth.
“Forty percent of our state’s population is going to be a trip to the grocery store from a veritable candy land of legal weed,” Fetterman said.
Republicans lawmakers are for the moment, opposed to a legalization measure, due to concerns about substance abuse and enforcement.
House Republican spokesman Jason Gottesman distributed a list of questions for the governor to reporters, before an administration press conference earlier in the fall. While journalists did not use any of the questions, it illustrated the GOP’s position in the chamber. It included queries such as:
“How will legalizing marijuana contribute to the health and safety of Pennsylvania’s children and the well-being of our families?” and “Is it really responsible to legalize a drug just to get more cash? What does that say about morals?”
Republicans in the legislature have also accused the Wolf administration of using talk of a potential legalization measure to draw public attention away from more pressing issues, like reopening schools and businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Instead of legalizing drugs as a way to tax and spend on new government programs, the governor should work with the General Assembly to help get Pennsylvanians safely back to work, get our children the best educational opportunities, and provide the return to normalcy Pennsylvanians long for,” Gottesman wrote in September.
Keith Humphreys is a drug policy expert and psychiatry professor at Stanford University. He said if the commonwealth chooses to do so, it has a chance to legalize recreational marijuana in a “smart” way.
“If you’re in a state where you think it’s a bad idea, but it’s going to happen anyway, then the smart play is then put in a really strong regulatory system,” Humphreys said. “Regulate the potency, regulate advertising, set up a state monopoly as we’ve done in Pennsylvania with alcohol, rather than having corporations pushing product.”
A state Auditor General’s report from 2018 showed recreational marijuana could generate as much as half a billion dollars in tax revenue every year.
Humphreys said the public sentiment appears to be increasingly favorable to legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana. But before states like Pennsylvania approve or dismiss the idea out of hand, he said, it ought to be considered by lawmakers and policy experts in a measured way
“That’s my advice when I talk to states. Don’t think about this as yes or no. Think about all the range of ways you can do it and if you’re going to do it, do it in a smart way. Don’t just completely remove all regulations, because you’ll end up being sorry,” Humphreys said.