Republicans recoil from tepid Wolf stance on marijuana legalization

Republicans recoil from tepid Wolf stance on marijuana legalization

Author: Stephen Caruso/Thursday, December 20, 2018/Categories: News and Views

While taking questions from the public online this week, Gov. Tom Wolf added some daylight to his views on recreational marijuana.

The Democratic governor, who just won his reelection campaign, had historically been hesitant to back legalizing cannabis for non-medical use.

But in response to an inquiry from a Twitter user Wednesday, Wolf pointed to other states success in saying it could be time to consider legal weed.



Wolf elaborated at a Thursday press conference on pensions that he was "just trying to be a realist" in expanding his position in light of recreational pushes in neighboring New York and New Jersey.

The statement also wasn't meant to be a call for immediate action from the legislature, Wolf noted. And any change would require legislative support, which could end up a heavy lift looking at recent history.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed medical marijuana in 2016, but even that causes’ champion, Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon), has expressed skepticism that the state was ready for recreational cannabis.

The state's current, medicinal-focus meant the industry could develop to help ailing individuals with epilepsy or Crohn's disease instead of responding to the whims of the consumer market.

"The reason New York and New Jersey are going to [recreational marijuana] is because their [medical] programs stink,” Folmer said.

The cannabis champion said he though the medicinal industry also provided more job opportunities, and could provide research on driving while high to help assuage existing concerns.

Wolf's clarification Thursday followed a strongly worded statement from Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre), who called the position to legalize “reckless and irresponsible” citing limited research and opposition from law enforcement.

Wolf said his additional statement was unrelated to the response from the high ranking Senator.

Law enforcement skepticism to any drug changes was on full display this fall, when the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance a modest decriminalization bill from Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R-Berks).

The bill would have decreased the penalty on the first two instances of marijuana possession to a maximum $300 fine and no jail time. A third offense could result in a higher fine and suspended license.

Jozwiak backed it as a chance to remove a costly burden from counties’ criminal justice systems. Wolf had also already backed decriminalization.

While the bill received wide, bipartisan approval, conservative voices at the meeting raised concerns that the language watered down state drug laws.

Jozwiak also cited support from the state Fraternal Order of Police and state troopers, but both clarified that they opposed the language afterwards. The bill received no floor consideration.

Recreational weed has its backers. Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has consistently called for the step as a chance to add nearly $600 million in yearly tax revenues to the commonwealth’s coffers.

If support in the House gained steam, Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Allegheny) will have legislation ready to address the issue. He said in a statement he planned to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana while expunging criminal records and returning driver's and professional licenses for cannabis convictions.

"My bill goes further than any other by rectifying injustices and making investments in the people of the commonwealth," he said in a statement.

The language would also put tax revenue from recreational weed to affordable housing, student loan forgiveness and after school program funding.

According to a 2017 poll from Franklin and Marshall University, 56 percent of state voters agree with legalizing recreational cannabis.

Getting the gears of the legislature to agree with the public could be slow going, as it is still an open question on who will head the Judiciary Committees in both chambers, vacant from retirements, as their voice could also help dictate what legislation moves and what doesn’t.

But if a bill does reach the Senate floor, Corman was sure to lay out where he stands.

“As long as I am leader, I will do everything in my power to prevent legalization of recreational marijuana,” he said.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 3:37 p.m. 12/20/18 with additional comment from Sen. Mike Folmer and Rep. Jake Wheatley.

Stephen Caruso is the Harrisburg bureau chief at The PLS Reporter. Have a question, comment or tip? Email him at stephen@mypls.com or call at 845-891-4306.

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