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Fast Forward

Fast Forward: Rolling the dice on legal pot

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The future of legalized marijuana in Pennsylvania can be summed up in one question.

How many more places will state lawmakers allow gambling before they start taxing a new sin?

Airports and truck stops may be the next places you see gambling in the commonwealth. That leaves what? Shopping malls? Ski resorts? Hersheypark?

Eventually, we will run out of places. Lawmakers, faced with yet another budget deficit, will turn to legal marijuana. They certainly have not shown any appetite for taxing natural gas.

We already have some taste of what legal marijuana could fetch in terms of tax revenue, courtesy of Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, an advocate of legalization.

Earlier this year he estimated that if the state legalizes and taxes marijuana, it could raise $200 million per year.

State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery County), one of the commonwealth's most persistent advocates for legalization, expects the move could bring in even more: $1.5 billion per year.

The revenue doesn't account for potential savings in the criminal justice system and other places, said Leach, who has introduced legalization bills in every legislative session since 2013 and continues to bring up the subject.

"From my perspective, the money is important, but what really drives me is we’re ruining so many people's lives with prohibition," he said. "We're ruining their careers. We're ending their educations. We're putting them in the criminal justice system."

While Leach sees the issue through a humanitarian lens, he said, he doesn't care if other lawmakers see the issue strictly through a revenue lens – as long as they vote “yes."

So far, however, legislation to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Pennsylvania has not come up for a vote. Leach attributes the reluctance, in part, to lawmakers leery of getting ahead of voters.

Recent polls, however, show a majority supporting legalization. In a September poll by the Franklin & Marshall College Center for Opinion Research, legalization drew support from 59 percent of Pennsylvanians, up from 56 percent in May.

And lawmakers don’t appear to have suffered any adverse consequences from supporting marijuana for medicinal use.

Gambling, too, has become more available even as social conservatives continue to lament its spread.

"Forty years ago you could only gamble in one state," Leach said. "Now you can gamble in some form in 48 states and the reason is, money drives these sort of things."

But, he warned, growth in gaming revenue isn't infinite, especially as gambling havens proliferate. 

"At a certain point you can't keep going to the same well over and over again," Leach said. "It's going to run dry."

When it comes to marijuana, federal policy is dicier. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions does not appear to be a big fan of the substance, even for medical use.

State officials have pushed back. But so far, Sessions appears not to be offering much interference in state affairs.

And he may still be in office when Pennsylvania joins California, Colorado and other states in approving recreational use of marijuana.

Leach expects it will take another three years to pass a legalization bill in Pennsylvania.

"Prohibition is such an irrational, expensive, cruel, heartless policy that it's not sustainable in the long run," Leach added.

It shouldn’t be hard to find someone willing to take the bet on its demise. Have you been to a truck stop or airport lately?

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Joel Berg

Joel Berg

Joel Berg is editor of the Central Penn Business Journal. Born in Philadelphia, raised in Northern Virginia and now living in York, he's a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College and the University of Maryland. Have a question or story idea? Email him at jberg@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JoelBYorkPa.

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