PA Cannabis Legalization Will Have Dire Consequences | RealClearPolitics

Last week, Republican state Sen. Mike Regan changed his mind on marijuana legalization and joined Democratic state Rep. Amen Brown to announce a new bill to commercialize pot in Pennsylvania. Regan would do well to listen to his former colleagues in law enforcement who see through the marijuana industry’s false promises.   

Legalization is no longer about the 5% THC ditch weed of Woodstock. Instead, today’s marijuana “buds” regularly contain up to 30% THC – the main, psychoactive compound in marijuana that makes a user feel “high” – while the increasingly popular concentrates, such as dabs (inhaled through vaping devices), contain upward of 99% THC.

Expanding the creation and promotion of this new, super-charged drug into Pennsylvania will create major public health consequences. Recent research has found daily use of high-potency marijuana is associated with a five-fold increase in instances of schizophrenia and psychosis. The addiction rate alone is up from one in 10 just a decade ago to one in three. Considering these figures, the idea of normalizing and promoting marijuana use – amid the COVID-19 pandemic, no less – is simply baffling.

In a recent op-ed, Regan claimed that Pennsylvania’s “law enforcement agencies and justice system do not have the manpower or time to handle minor marijuana offenses.” Legalization, he said, would allow law enforcement to focus its efforts on drug traffickers moving heroin and fentanyl.

If only this were true in practice. Opioid-related deaths have increased year over year in states where marijuana is legal for both medicinal and recreational use. What’s worse, Regan has seemingly failed to understand what happens to law enforcement post-legalization.

In 2018, for example, federal and state law enforcement agencies conducted one of the largest drug busts in history in California and Colorado, finding Mexican cartels, Cuban drug traffickers, and Chinese crime syndicates operating massive marijuana operations in warehouses and private subdivisions. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom is spending millions of taxpayer dollars on public-awareness campaigns urging Californians to purchase marijuana only at state-licensed pot shops. Why? Because California’s illicit market is reportedly outselling the “legal” market at a rate of three to one. The National Guard has even been called in to dismantle the never-ending supply of illicit weed growing on public lands.

Simply put, legalizing and commercializing marijuana has not eradicated the illicit market anywhere. In fact, it’s gotten worse – and law enforcement has taken the brunt of it.

But what about tax revenue from legal pot – doesn’t that justify legalization? Don’t count on it. A Colorado study found that the state pays $4.50 in costs for every $1 in marijuana tax revenue. All told, marijuana tax revenue accounts for only 0.9% of the entire state budget.

What about social justice? In a memorandum to his colleagues in the Pennsylvania House, Brown urged his fellow lawmakers to join him in supporting legalization to “[ensure] that an equity lens is applied and that injustices caused by enforcement of drug laws are redressed.” The unfortunate reality, though, is that marijuana legalization has so far resulted in social injustice and worsened inequities.

In reality, African Americans remain twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana in Colorado and Washington, despite both states having legalized recreational use of the drug seven years ago. In the five years following legalization, Hispanic and Asian arrest rates increased in Denver.

And the same week that news of the legalization proposal broke, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the prison population in Pennsylvania had reached a 20-year low … all without having to legalize marijuana.

Marijuana commercialization has created a predatory industry that targets minority and disenfranchised communities with over-saturation of retail stores and advertisements, as did its predecessors Big Tobacco and alcohol (both industries, in fact, have already invested billions in the marijuana business). And while pot shops are disproportionately located in minority communities, their ownership doesn’t reflect their surroundings. Less than 20% of the marijuana industry features minority ownership of any kind, and only 4% of it is black-owned.

If Pennsylvania lawmakers really want to address the issue of marijuana arrests, the policy of decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana – already in force in many Keystone State cities – should be expanded statewide. The state also needs to prevent marijuana use before it starts and stop glamorizing use. Legalizing pot works against all these efforts.

Pennsylvanians are depending on their representatives to put children ahead of pot profits. The state legislature must say no to the commercialization of marijuana.  

Kevin Sabet is a former senior drug policy adviser to the Obama administration. He is president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), and his latest book is “Smokescreen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know” (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

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