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Auditor General: Marijuana Could Solve PA's Budget Crisis

Gene J. Puskar
Michael Cole, of Clairton, waits in line to attend a Medical Marijuana Job Fair in downtown McKeesport on Thursday, July 27, 2017. PurePenn will hire up to 50 full-time employees by 2018 for its state-sanctioned growing operation.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he thinks fully legalizing medical and recreational marijuana could solve the state's growing budget problems.

The commonwealth's general fund was down $1.6 billion last year alone. Another $600,000 deficit is expected going into Fiscal Year 2018. DePasquale said in his conservative estimate, full legalization in Pennsylvania could be worth at least $200 million in tax revenue a year.

“The way we’re going about dealing with marijuana right now literally is nonsense,” he said. “The idea that we’re going to throw people in jail for this is crazy… Let’s bring in the tax revenue, let’s regulate it appropriately – keep it out of the hands of kids – and let’s improve our economy.”

Eight states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana. Both major party gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey have promised to support legalization, too.

If Pennsylvania doesn't move on the legalization, DePasquale said New Jersey could reap the monetary reward.

“People will drive over the border to get what they want. The longer we wait,” he said, “the more we’re going to miss out.”

He argues regulated cannabis could spur taxable income from new private sector business, save municipalities thousands in arrest and prosecution costs, and be a boon to agriculture.

The commonwealth's medical marijuana system is expected to be fully functional by the middle of next year. To get a state-issued card, patients with one of 17 serious medical conditions – including epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and seizures – will need to be certified by a doctor. Smoking will still be banned, and dispensaries and growing facilities will be limited.

A Quinnipiac poll released in August showed 60 percent of Americans agree adult use should be fully legal. About 94 percent support medical use. Both figures are the highest approval ratings ever recorded on the issue.

A similar poll by Franklin & Marshall College released in May found 56 percent of voters in Pennsylvania would support full legalization.

Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery, Delaware) sponsored Pennsylvania’s successful medical marijuana legislation and continues to encourage full legalization through Senate Bill 213, which would treat marijuana like alcohol. The bill was referred to the senate's law and justice committee in January.

State Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny) told The Incline this week that he, too, supports statewide decriminalization, and ultimately, legalization. He pledged to introduce a resolution that directs the Joint State Government Commission to establish an advisory committee to conduct an ongoing study on the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana and report its findings and recommendations to the House of Representatives.

Pittsburgh City Council passed partial decriminalization for smoking and small possession in 2016, declaring it punishable by a fine and summary citation instead of a misdemeanor as state law mandates.

York, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and other municipalities have also passed decriminalization legislation.