Gov. Tom Wolf called the legalization of recreational marijuana a “heaven-sent” opportunity to boost Pennsylvania’s economy in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The proposal is likely to draw opposition from Republican legislative leaders, and one top GOP senator said Thursday that cannabis legislation is unlikely to get any traction in the coming months.
Wolf, who first called for recreational legalization last year, pitched the plan as a way to raise revenues without tax increases. A 2018 state Auditor General’s report predicted Pennsylvania could reap about $580 million a year from marijuana sales.
“It could provide millions of dollars in much needed revenue, at a time when we desperately need that revenue,” the governor said Thursday at a press conference in Harrisburg. “Especially now, we should not be ignoring these opportunities.”
Cannabis-generated proceeds could be earmarked to be used as grants for historically disadvantaged businesses and restorative justice programs, Wolf said.
He said that legislation should include reforms for those currently serving time for possession of marijuana. Prior convictions could be retracted or sealed, Wolf added.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who spent months touring all 67 counties holding town halls on the issue, said cannabis could be a “cash crop” for Pennsylvania farmers.
He also said the legislation would create jobs by allowing the formation of a marijuana industry and keeping those who would have previously been arrested in the workforce.
“A small minority of Pennsylvanians oppose the legalization of cannabis, so this isn’t shocking,” Fetterman said. “This isn’t controversial.”
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman accused Wolf of using the COVID-19 pandemic as a chance to advance his political goals.
“We have long maintained that state laws should be changed because they are good policy for the people of Pennsylvania – not because of their potential to generate money,” he said in a statement.
Corman said senate leadership is looking forward to getting more details, including who would regulate the industry and who would be permitted to sell it. He added that “movement on this issue should not be expected this fall.”
Jason Gottleman, a spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, said Wolf should be focusing on reopening on the economy and getting children back to school.
The governor said negotiations haven’t begun with the General Assembly, but he hopes to start discussions.
State Sen. Sharif Street, whose district includes parts of North and Northwest Philadelphia, said he has talked with GOP colleagues who are open to considering legalization.
“I believe that if there were a vote, there would be a significant number of Republicans prepared to vote for it, and I’m not prepared to say which ones,” Street said.
He suggested that the move could spark cannabis-related tourism and help the state’s hospitality industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Legalization would chase out drug dealers and lead to a decrease in youth marijuana use, because store clerks would be checking IDs, Street said.
Eleven states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana. Medical marijuana was approved in Pennsylvania in 2016, and possession of small amounts of the drug is decriminalized in Philadelphia.
Mayor Jim Kenney has expressed support for Wolf’s proposal.