Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf last week asked lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly to send him a bill that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana by adults. It was a little less than a year ago that Wolf first announced his support for legalization and also for the decriminalization of nonviolent and small cannabis-related offenses. “Pennsylvania law treats possession of any marijuana outside the medical marijuana program as a crime, although there is a diversion program for first-time, nonviolent offenders and a few municipalities have enacted what is effectively decriminalization of possession of very small amounts,” The Associated Press explained last week.
We remained firmly opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania and don’t believe anything significant about the debate has changed since it was discussed last autumn.
(Other than the fact that we’re in the midst of a pandemic involving a virus that can cause acute respiratory distress and has killed more than 181,000 Americans.)
Marijuana legalization was a bad idea by the governor last year.
It’s still a bad idea.
We do understand there’s much public support for legalization. But also that it’s difficult to get a clear sense of the overall sentiment in Lancaster County.
In March 2019, we noted that more than two-thirds of LNP | LancasterOnline letters to the editor were against legalization. But we also observed that when Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s listening tour came to Lancaster County that same month, a majority of those in attendance raised their hands in support of legalization.
Further, an LNP | LancasterOnline online poll last week asked, “Are you in favor of Gov. Wolf’s proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in Pa.?” As of Friday, about 64% of respondents to that unscientific survey had voted yes.
It’s clear there are strong local opinions on both sides of this debate.
To us, it remains an issue of public health. These are our talking points against marijuana legalization:
— The deadly opioid crisis in Pennsylvania has not gone away. It is a crisis that, as Wolf himself has said, requires an “all-hands-on-deck” response from government, health care providers, law enforcement officials and emergency responders.
Republican House Speaker Bryan Cutler of Peach Bottom was correct last year when he stated, “We do not believe easing regulations on illegal drugs is the right move in helping the thousands of Pennsylvanians who are battling drug addiction.”
— Marijuana is clearly not the same as opioids or cocaine, but there have been findings “consistent with the idea of marijuana as a ‘gateway drug,’ ” the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes. The possibility that such a linkage to hard drugs exists is of great concern.
— According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the health risks of marijuana include that it “can affect the circulatory system and may increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes” and that “marijuana users are significantly more likely than nonusers to develop chronic mental disorders, including schizophrenia.” Those are not health risks to take lightly.
— Smoking marijuana damages a person’s lungs. According to the American Lung Association, “Marijuana smokers tend to inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than cigarette smokers, which leads to a greater exposure per breath to tar.” And smoking marijuana can “affect the immune system and the body’s ability to fight disease.” We should not legalize a drug that would put our immune system at further risk in the time of COVID-19.
— Should marijuana be legalized, it would only be for adults age 21 and older. But, as we wrote in October, “we’re guessing that parents who don’t lock their liquor cabinets won’t lock away their weed. ... And if teens don’t get marijuana from their parents’ stashes, they’ll get it from older siblings. Obviously some teens are getting their hands on marijuana already. But why make it easier for them?”
If and when those teens get access to legalized recreational marijuana, the health concerns are significant; it may damage their developing brains. Neuroscientist Staci Gruber, quoted in a 2015 American Psychological Association article, noted that “the brain is still under construction” until at least a person’s early to mid-20s. And during that time the brain can be especially sensitive to damage from drug exposure.
We could get into other problems with marijuana legalization, including the societal costs of increased hospitalizations and emergency department visits, and the dangers of Pennsylvanians driving while high (an issue that state Sen. Scott Martin of Martic Township has rightly pointed to with concern in the past).
But we believe the health considerations we outlined are reason enough for legalization to remain a bad idea for Pennsylvania.
And, frankly, we think it’s irresponsible of the governor to bring it up again for consideration while Harrisburg has far more pressing issues to tackle.