Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale can think of 200 million reasons why recreational marijuana use should be legalized in this state.
That’s how many dollars DePasquale believes legalized pot could generate for cash-strapped Pennsylvania’s general fund.
He also believes legalization could reduce the costs and stigma associated with criminal prosecution of marijuana-related crimes.
“I make this recommendation because it is a more sane policy to deal with a critical issue facing the state,” DePasquale said. “Other states are already taking advantage of the opportunity for massive job creation and savings from reduced arrests and prosecutions.”
“In addition, it would generate hundreds of millions of dollars each year that could help tackle Pennsylvania’s budget problems,” DePasquale said.
DePasquale made the pitch during a Capitol press conference on Monday, citing the experiences of other states in explaining why he thinks Pennsylvania should follow their lead.
The state continues to struggle under the weight of an ongoing $2 billion structural deficit. And already this fiscal year, revenue collections were down about $450 million through February, according to the Department of Revenue, and some projections suggest this year’s budget shortfall could end up being $600 million.
“The revenue that could be generated would help address Pennsylvania’s revenue and spending issues, but there is more to this than simply tax dollars and jobs,” he said. “There is also social impact, specifically related to arrests, and the personal, emotional and financial devastation that may result from such arrests.”
Other states are doing it
Seven states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized recreational use of marijuana.
DePasquale drew most heavily on Colorado, where voters approved legalizing, regulating and taxing the substance in 2012.
Last year, the western state earned $129 million in tax revenue on $1 billion in marijuana sales, he said. Given that Colorado’s population is less than half the size of Pennsylvania’s, DePasquale called his calculation of $200 million in annual revenue a “conservative” estimate of how much Harrisburg might pull in.
While most of those states are in the western part of the country, Maine and Massachusetts also have joined their ranks, and DePasquale predicted that neighbors such as New Jersey and New York could eventually do the same, citing polling which shows 60 percent of Americans favor decriminalization.
He cautioned that failure to act could put the state behind economically and compared with its peers.
“Not only are we going to miss out on the business opportunities, we’re going to be an outlier,” he said.
DePasquale also said marijuana-related crime dropped in the states which hav decriminalized use.
In Colorado, he said, the total number of arrests decreased from 13,000 to 7,000 between 2012 and 2014. Marijuana possession arrests, the biggest category, were down 47 percent, while sales arrests decreased by 24 percent.
“All told, this decrease in arrest numbers represents thousands of people who would otherwise have blemished records that could prevent them from obtaining future employment or even housing,” DePasquale said.
An example of the phenomenon has been seen here in Pennsylvania.
In 2014, then-Mayor Michael Nutter signed into law a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana in the city of Philadelphia.
DePasquale said marijuana arrests in the state’s largest city dropped from 2,843 in 2014 to 969 last year.
Meanwhile, he cited statistics showing that York, Dauphin, Chester, Bucks and Montgomery counties each had more arrests for small amounts of marijuana last year than Philadelphia did.
The fiscal result, he said, was an estimated $4.1 million in savings for Philadelphia.
What does the state’s top law enforcement official think?
While running for office last year, Democratic Attorney General candidate Josh Shapiro told Lehigh University’s student newspaper that that he supported legalizing medicinal marijuana — something Pennsylvania did last April — and that he supported reducing penalties for those who are caught with small amounts of marijuana.
Office of Attorney General Communications Director Joe Grace did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Shapiro’s reaction to the DePasquale proposal.
Shapiro may not be the prosecutor whose views make the most difference on this issue.
Marijuana use remains illegal under federal law, but the U.S. Justice Department, under the Obama administration, made pursuing the issue a low priority.
Newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime opponent of marijuana use, said last week that he continues to believe marijuana use leads to violent crime, and hinted that a crackdown is possible.
While Pennsylvania could be months or years away from adopting decriminalization legislation, DePasquale was blunt in his assessment of Sessions’ remarks.
“I think he’s nuts,” DePasquale said.
Sending federal agents to make marijuana arrests in states where it has been decriminalized “would create the biggest backlash we have seen with any domestic policy in our lifetimes,” he predicted.
How long might it take for a pro-pot bill to pass? DePasquale acknowledged that was a question for individual lawmakers. He did note, however, that State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery County) has been a supporter of the idea.
Leach in January re-introduced a bill that would legalize personal use. So far, it has only one other sponsor, Philadelphia Democrat Sharif Street.
But, Leach pointed out, that was the case when he first introduced legislation for medicinal use, too.
“I’m very grateful to Auditor General DePasquale. He has shown great insight and courage in taking the lead on this important issue,” Leach told the Business Journal.
He also called for governing the state’s cannabis policy using rational grounds, “not old wives’ tales,” adding, as DePasquale did, that the number of marijuana arrests — including of young people — is doing more harm than good.
“Right now, if it was a secret ballot, recreational marijuana would pass both the house and the senate,” he suggested — except, he said, for legislators’ natural aversion to controversy. Regardless, Leach believes that the groundswell of popular support will eventually push for widespread legalization.
“I just hope we aren’t one of the last,” he added.
Gov. Tom Wolf, also has been a supporter of decriminalization, though a spokesman on Monday suggested he is taking a measured approach to DePasquale’s proposal.
“The governor appreciates the Auditor General’s recognition of the severity of our structural budget deficit. Governor Wolf has long supported the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana to reduce the strain on our prison system and stop incarcerating so many people for non-violent crimes like possession,” J.J. Abbott said.
“However, the governor wants further study of the impact and implementation of full legalization on other states like Colorado before proceeding with that approach in Pennsylvania,” Abbott added.
DePasquale stressed that he was not calling for action without serious consideration.
“Obviously, regulation and taxation of marijuana is not something that should be entered into lightly,” he said, adding that age limits, regulatory oversight, licensing, possession and sales locations would have to be examined.
Acknowledging questions about potential health issues and harm, DePasquale drew a comparison with alcohol: adults are permitted to consume it lawfully, but clear penalties exist for driving under the influence and other alcohol-related crimes.
Why not, then, do the same with marijuana, he added.
“The regulation and taxation of the marijuana train has rumbled out of the station, and it is time to add a stop in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” he said.