Listen Live
Listen Live

On Air Now

Brushwood Media Network
Brushwood Media Network

Marijuana legalization: Do not under-resource those regulators

SHARE NOW

(The Center Square) — As the Pennsylvania House considers marijuana legalization, legislators want to learn from the mistakes elsewhere as they try to remedy the mistakes of the past.

“If we’re gonna be talking about legalizing cannabis, regulating it, having it be something that is part of a beneficial economy to Pennsylvania,” said Rep. Rich Krajewski, D-Philadelphia, “part of that conversation has to be also how we correct the past wrongs of criminalization.”

As dozens of states have legalized recreational marijuana, more than a dozen states have done it hand-in-hand with broader reforms.

“Simply repealing the prohibition of cannabis is insufficient,” said Frank Stiefel, senior policy associate at the Last Prisoner Project. “The inclusion of criminal justice reform policies has become the standard for states.”

Resentencing policies, too, are becoming more common since 2020, he noted.

Stiefel argued for Pennsylvania to get proactive to help clear prisoners’ criminal records or resentence them and suggested following Minnesota in having an independent board to oversee the process.

To create a “more just framework,” as Krajewski phrased it, the commonwealth already has a model: the Clean Slate law that seals criminal records of low-level felonies.

Sharon Dietrich, litigation director of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, noted that almost 50 million cases have so far been sealed thanks to the law and argued it’s “by far the most effective” of similar laws passed in a dozen states.

Sealing or expunging records for marijuana-related charges, if the commonwealth legalizes recreational use, would have significant benefits, she argued. Without a clean criminal record, getting a job becomes very difficult.

“Having a criminal record as an employment barrier started as this tiny legal problem that we saw — and eventually grew to the extent that two-thirds of the people who came to us for intake were there to seek help with their criminal record,” Dietrich said. “It is clearly the most serious barrier.”

Legalizing marijuana could also help police officers deal with stress, said Chad Bruckner of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. He cited his own struggles that pushed him to problematic drinking as a coping mechanism.

“It can help them come off the alcohol – which is devastating police families, devastating — as the mental health issues go up,” Bruckner said.

When he got a (non-smoking) medical cannabis prescription, he stopped drinking “four to six double-IPAs every night,” lost 35 pounds, and gave up other medications.

But to legalize recreational marijuana, the details matter. Flaws that get implemented in the law and the bureaucracy that comes from it could exacerbate the social costs.

Bob Troyer, a former U.S. attorney in Colorado, warned that the normalization of marijuana after legalization in 2012 has also brought crime, more marijuana-related deaths, high levels of youth smoking, and other social costs. An illicit marijuana remains, despite legalization.

Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, was concerned about a spike in marijuana-related calls to poison control, while Rep. Tim Bonner, R-Grove City, referenced studies arguing the social costs of legalization far outpaced new tax revenue.

To deal with those issues, Troyer argued for more funding for regulatory agencies.

“Do not leave loopholes, ambiguities in the definition of the responsibilities of the regulators — and do not under-resource those regulators,” he said. “That’s where a lot of our mischief started.”

“Everybody will tell you that funding your regulators beyond what they even think they need funding for is essential,” he said. “Our primary problem out here that created many of the wild west snake oil sales, gold-rush stuff was the result of the Marijuana Enforcement Division (being) grossly under-resourced and it wasn’t clear what their jobs were.”

States expected a small staff to do too much, from issuing licenses to auditing seller compliance and reporting violations.

“They just did not have anywhere near the expertise or the personnel to keep up with all those various jobs,” Troyer said.