Lawmakers still divided over marijuana legalization

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square

(The Center Square) — As almost half of all states allow recreational marijuana, it sometimes feels inevitable that Pennsylvania will follow the lead of their neighbors.

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During a committee hearing, though, opposition remains significant.

The House Health Subcommittee on Health Care heard testimony on Wednesday, with Democrats more supportive of recreational use and Republicans more wary of its dangers.

“We want to right some of the wrongs of the past by ensuring that those who have been the target of cannabis criminalization don’t continue to carry the stigma,” Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Pittsburgh, said. “We’d like to see our economy benefit from legal sales rather than illegal sales … and think about how we might mitigate (concerns) through appropriate regulation and oversight. Fundamentally, any proposal that we put forward must prioritize the health of Pennsylvanians.”

Legalizing marijuana would, if nothing else, give more control of the market to legislators, experts argued.

“There’s a very common fallacy … that drug prohibition equals drug control,” Amanda Reiman, chief knowledge officer of New Frontier Data, which focuses on the marijuana industry, said. “In prohibition, you don’t get to control anything.”

What brings control, she said, is regulation.

“The only way to trump that illicit market is to continue to allow adult-use regulation,” Reiman said.

Without a legal market, legislators argued the demand wouldn’t dissipate.

“Whether marijuana’s legal or illegal, folks who are dealing with trauma and finding ways to manage that without access to care are gonna find it wherever they’re gonna find it,” Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Exton, said.

Opponents of legalization outlined areas of importance if recreational use does become a reality in Pennsylvania.

“The fact of the matter is we don’t need another legalized, abused, and impairing drug,” Kent Vrana, chair of the Department of Pharmacology at Penn State University, said. 

Though Vrana is opposed to legalization, he argued legislators would need to ensure products are safe, place limits on THC concentrations, limit out-of-state marijuana from entering the commonwealth, and figure out how to regulate the “acute impairment” that comes from marijuana.

Republicans were deeply concerned about youth use and the drug’s health impacts.

“The dangers for our youth, for our families, for the risk of putting more and more of our citizens in the mental health system, I believe, far outweighs – I don’t really see any benefits to legalization,” Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, said.

The experience of other states, they argued, shows the risk of legalization.

“Every state that has ‘legalized’ recreational marijuana has started with the admission that they are going to make sure to protect citizens and address youth use of marijuana — and every state has gotten that wrong,” Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Waynesboro, said. “Youth use of marijuana has increased, the young adult use of marijuana has increased.”

Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, noted that legalization sparks a shift in the product and in user behavior.

“The direction of the market after legalization is towards more potent products and also much more intense use,” Caulkins said. “The big change we’re seeing with the liberalization of policy is a big increase in the intensity of use … Cannabis used to be used like alcohol as an occasional recreational product — now it’s used more like tobacco.”

THC content in marijuana also increases with legalization. Poor labeling standards are also an issue thanks to corrupt testing labs, he said.

“Scrutinize the testing industry,” Caulkins said. “The testing labs work for industry, they get revenue from industry, so they put on the label whatever the industry wants because the states aren’t looking over the shoulder of testing companies … Those labels are really close to bogus in a lot of places.”

Jeff Hanley, executive director of the Commonwealth Prevention Alliance that works to reduce substance abuse, noted problems don’t disappear with legalization.

“The (marijuana addiction) numbers aren’t high, but the same thing could be said about alcohol, the same thing was said about prescription medicines …but we know the damage that these industries can cause,” Hanley said. “If we were to look at legalizing this, we need to fully fund prevention efforts.”

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