Marijuana legalization

A visitor examines a marijuana sample at the New England Cannabis Convention in Boston in March. Three New England states legalized recreational marijuana, and if Pennsylvania were to follow suit, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Thursday, it could harvest $581 million in tax revenue a year.

HARRISBURG — Legalizing marijuana for recreational use could provide Pennsylvania with $581 million in tax revenue a year, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Thursday.

That’s almost three times as much as the $200 million DePasquale said the state missed out on annually when he called for legalizing marijuana in 2017.

The auditor general said the higher estimate comes from the number of Pennsylvanians who say they smoke marijuana, along with estimates from other states about how much marijuana users spend on the drug.

More than 8 percent of Pennsylvania adults admit they use marijuana recreationally despite its status as an illegal drug, DePasquale said.

In Colorado and Washington, where marijuana has been legal since 2012, adult users spend an average of $2,080 annually, DePasquale said.

A statewide poll by Franklin and Marshall College released last September found that 59 percent of Pennsylvanians surveyed support legalizing marijuana — a major turnaround from a 2006 poll that found 70 percent of Pennsylvanians opposed the idea.

DePasquale said such surveys suggest lawmakers should take steps to make marijuana legal. The money could be used to bolster the state’s child protective services by increasing pay for caseworkers or hiring more of them, he said. It could also be used to provide more treatment for people struggling with opioid addiction, DePasquale said.

Gov. Tom Wolf supports efforts to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana but has not backed a broader move to fully legalize marijuana for recreational use, his spokesman J.J. Abbott said Thursday. The governor also supports efforts “to keep low-level marijuana users out of the criminal justice system,” Abbott said.

Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach of Delaware County introduced a measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use in January 2017. Only one other lawmaker signed on as co-sponsor — Democratic state Sen. Sharif Street of Philadelphia. The measure has not gotten a committee vote.

The state Senate did vote unanimously in April on a resolution urging Congress to reclassify marijuana. That resolution focused on the need to reclassify the drug to protect the rights of medical marijuana patients. Pennsylvania passed a medical marijuana law in 2016. Dispensaries for patients to get medical marijuana began opening in February. There are now 29 dispensaries open in Pennsylvania, according to a map produced by the Department of Health.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said that as marijuana becomes legal in more places, it’s inevitable that it will be legal in Pennsylvania eventually.

“We’re going to be a leader or a follower,” he said.

Peduto joined DePasquale at a press conference Thursday touting the benefits of legalizing recreational marijuana.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association opposes the idea.

“We understand the interest in getting revenue,” said Richard Long, executive director of the prosecutors’ group. “The societal costs outweigh the revenue.”

He said too many people who are addicted to heroin or opioids have histories of using other drugs, including marijuana. Legalizing marijuana would also implicitly tell young people that marijuana is acceptable, he said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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