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Changing tide of legalized marijuana too fast for some

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(The Center Square) — Though some politicians treat recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania as an inevitability, others remain skeptical.

They warn that the social costs of drug use don’t disappear – and a legalized industry brings problems of its own.

Still, elected officials consider reforms even if they oppose legalization.

Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Waynesboro, has been an opponent of recreational use, but has proposed a bill to change marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a summary offense.

The idea is aligning law with reality: many district attorneys across Pennsylvania rarely prosecute possession charges unless someone is caught with significant amounts.

“In my conversations with DAs and judges, all of them have said no one’s going to prison for possession of small amounts of marijuana,” Schemel said. “Reducing the offense, making it a summary offense, if there’s an issue with policing where there’s these transactions in public places, it still gives police a tool to use to move those things out of the streets, but not be so punitive.”

Marijuana legalization won’t eliminate the need for policing, however. Schemel noted that states with recreational use still have illicit sales that will require restrictions. In some cases, he argued, those states have seen an increase in policing surrounding marijuana in the illegal market.

Schemel sits on the House Health Committee, which has held a series of meetings on legalization, from Canada’s experience to criminal justice concerns to how to regulate the drug.

Schemel emphasized that post-legalization, places have had to deal with a rise in societal harms from marijuana use and a rise in overall usage rates.

“Marijuana’s used broadly in the United States, but in places that have legalized, by the process of legalizing you normalize. All of this data supports that usage goes up,” Schemel said. “Does anyone think — even if you think smoking a joint now and again is fine — does anyone think that the daily use of marijuana is good?”

Though Republicans are divided on whether legalization is a good idea, Democrats seem to split into two camps for legalization: one exemplified by Gov. Josh Shapiro to legalize it and drive tax revenue, and another that would sell recreational marijuana through something like Pennsylvania’s state-owned stores that control alcohol sales, similar to the status quo in Quebec.

The French Canadian approach may provide revenue to deal with the social costs of drug use, but a tax revenue maximalist approach could have unintended consequences. In the vice industry, the pattern has been that what starts out small continues to grow.

“I was not in the legislature when they passed casino gambling, but when they did, they said this is gonna be very limited, there are only a few sites, very carefully regulated,” Schemel said. “But the industry continues to come back, saying we’re generating money for you, but we’re starting to lose money. So we need more sites, we need more licenses, we need more of everything.”

Lobbyists also demand that legislators come down on competitors, like skill games, he noted.

“There’s always mission creep,” Schemel said. “We passed medical marijuana; as soon as it was passed, it became very loose, but the industry’s come back to us many times saying we need to do more things. The same will happen if we legalize recreational marijuana. The industry will tell us we’ll have carefully guarded restrictions, but it’ll be mission creep: More ability to market, more ability to sell products, higher THC. That’s what always happens.”

And when political leaders expect those tax revenues to fund different programs or balance the budget, the pressure to give in to lobbying grows.

“Be careful of the state becoming financially dependent upon addictive behaviors,” Schemel said. “Most people go into a casino, they enjoy blackjack, then they leave and they had a good time — but it’s not an insignificant number of people at the casino who go in alone, sit at the stool, and spend the little money they have at a slot machine. Is that good for society? The state rationalizes this because, if we don’t do it, we’re missing out on this tax revenue. We’ve become financially dependent on an industry that we know does harm to people.”

Though careful not to equate marijuana to alcohol and gambling, he emphasized the dynamics that come into play when business concerns creep in.

“Every other state that legalized recreational marijuana, they’ve always had these careful controls that over time are diminished so that the industry can have more ability to sell,” Schemel said. “We’re willing to gloss over the harms and the people harmed because we’re pursuing something else — in this case, purely financial.”