Source: By PennLive Op-Ed  December 14, 2014

By Philip R. Kavanaugh and Daniel A. Howard

As Tom Wolf prepares for his move into the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg, Pennsylvanians will find that many of his views on crime and punishment are a significant departure from that of his predecessor. For example, while Corbett firmly supports the death penalty and opposes marijuana legalization in any form, Wolf opposes the death penalty and supports the legalization of marijuana for medical use.

Such views suggest a more humane- or at least, progressive and sensible- approach to crime and punishment that are a welcome respite from Corbett’s get-tough/lock ’em up approach that is partially responsible for severe budget shortfalls that have been plaguing Pennsylvania since the recession of 2008.

Though modestly progressive, Wolf’s views still place him a step behind American public opinion regarding marijuana legalization.

In 2014, 53 percent of Americans supported outright legalization, up sharply from 41 percent in 2010. Wolf’s “medicalization only” stance is a position he shares with most Pennsylvanians, however.

Pennsylvania’s pot policy remains out of step with the rest of the region.

According to a crime poll conducted this fall by Penn State Harrisburg, 50 percent of Pa. residents believe marijuana should be legalized for medical use. Another 33 percent believe that marijuana ought to be legalized outright — a figure markedly lower than the national average of 53 percent. The point to emphasize, however, is that a full 83 percent of Pennsylvanians support marijuana legalization in some capacity.

The Commonwealth is behind the curve with regard to national trends — especially for medical use of marijuana. As of November 2014, 23 states and Washington DC have approved marijuana use for medical purposes. Moreover, a number of traditionally conservative states, like North Carolina, Mississippi and Nebraska have voted to decriminalize marijuana possession, treating it as something more akin to a parking violation than an offense requiring arrest and imprisonment. And just last month Washington DC, Oregon and Alaska voted to legalize recreational use.

Pennsylvania is also a regional outlier. The entire Northeast/Mid Atlantic region of the country has approved medical marijuana use or decriminalized possession of small quantities (or both), as have the Commonwealth’s border states Ohio, Maryland and Delaware.

Gateway drug theory debunked

That Pennsylvania’s pot policy remains out of step with the rest of the region should come as no surprise, however. Just last year Governor Corbett stated that marijuana is “the most addictive gateway drug there is,” meaning that marijuana will open the door to the abuse of other, more dangerous drugs like heroin. Our poll data found similar attitudes among Pennsylvanians who support marijuana prohibition: 70 percent endorsed the “gateway drug” theory.

However, decades worth of studies find that marijuana use does not inevitably lead to more serious drug use later in life, or even in the short term. The federal government’s own Institute of Medicine’s declared in 2008 that there is no evidence supporting the gateway theory.

Similarly, there is no evidence suggesting that the effects of marijuana itself cause long-term physical problems such as addiction, or that misuse of marijuana can result in death. Contrast this to the harm caused by the misuse of legal prescription pain medication such as Vicodin, Percoset and Oxycontin, which accounted for 22,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2012, a glaring 53 percent of all overdose deaths.

High cost

Pennsylvania’s marijuana prohibition policy has been costly to taxpayers. In 2010 for example, 21,287 Pennsylvanians were arrested for marijuana violations (over 78 percent of these arrests were for possession only). Federal data placed the costs of marijuana enforcement in Pennsylvania at over $100 million for 2010.

Given that the Commonwealth has been mired in budget deficits of at least $1 billion annually since 2008, one must seriously ask whether Pennsylvania’s war on marijuana is a worthy moral investment or just a resource siphon.

National attitudes have changed

The national story on marijuana is a changing one. Its legalization is currently supported by a majority of Americans, its relation to self-harm and public health is negligible (especially when compared with prescription pain medication, or for that matter, alcohol), and its use among adolescents in many states outpaces that of tobacco.

All of this suggests the cultural moment is ripe for re-thinking the policy fad of arrest and imprisonment for marijuana users. Medical marijuana and decriminalization of simple possession are the first steps in charting a rational path forward. They appear to be steps both Governor-elect Wolf and Pennsylvania residents are prepared to take. It’s high time we see movement on that in the Legislature.

Philip R. Kavanaugh, PhD. and Daniel A. Howard, PhD. are on the faculty of Penn State Harrisburg.

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