A hundred years ago, cannabis was a major cash crop in this state. Now, the unmistakeable shift toward re-legalization promises a new economic windfall for the future.
SMOKING POT IS AS AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE: It helps people achieve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, if we are to listen to David Kowalsky. “Life,” he tells the Independence Mall audience from his perch atop a stubby bench. “It saves people’s lives. It kills cancer cells; it helps children, adults, everyone, get through the most difficult times in their life.” He continues: “Liberty. It is our freedom to consume a plant that helps us stay away from all the big Pharma, the chemicals they want to pollute us with. It hurts nobody.”
And the pursuit of happiness? That one seems pretty obvious. “Who’s not happy when they’re smoking weed?” he asks the crowd to large applause.
It’s Sat., Sept. 21, and Kowalsky, the CEO of Cannabis Network Radio, is one of eight speakers arguing in favor of marijuana legalization here at the ninth “Smokedown Prohibition” protest in as many months. Today’s topics range from medical treatments to the economic impact of legalization to the seemingly racist way anti-marijuana laws are enforced throughout the country.
The Florida-based radio host’s sentiment is backed by former Pennsylvania Environmental Secretary John Hanger, who wants to be the next governor of the commonwealth. “These [marijuana prohibition] laws are ruining peoples’ lives for the same thing that President Obama and two other presidents of the United States have done,” the Democrat preaches. “That’s unjust.”
Hanger is banking on his support of marijuana reform to act as a catalyst for the Democratic nomination next May—and his ticket to the governor’s mansion in November 2014. He tells the crowd here that his long-shot candidacy would “shock the establishment.” And you know what: While Hanger’s name is not necessarily the first name to come to mind in the crowded Democratic field to replace Gov. Corbett, it’s not the last, either.
He’s right about one thing: A pro-marijuana Pennsylvania governor, in 2015, probably would shock the establishment to its core. A few years later, though? Not so much.
Because pot will be legal in Pennsylvania.
In a statewide poll conducted in May by Franklin and Marshall College, 82 percent of respondents said they favor legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. While 54 percent said they were against the plant for recreational use, that number has declined steeply since 2006, when only 22 percent of Keystoners approved of legalization.
The swiftly changing numbers led political scientists G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young to conclude upon the poll’s release: “At this rate of change, a majority of Pennsylvanians might favor recreational marijuana before this decade ends and possibly sooner.”
As they watch states around the nation, one by one, begin to legalize marijuana use either medicinally (as 18 states have) or even recreationally (as Colorado and Washington now have), activists like Kevin Clough of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws have grown increasingly confident: “We believe that reform isn’t a matter of if, but when.”
Thing is, no one really knows what legal weed will look like in Pennsylvania—what sorts of impacts it’ll have on our society as a whole. But there are hints. At the very least, legalization would mean this:
A paradigm shift in statewide drug enforcement.
A boost to state economic policy.
And a potential cash crop that Pennsylvania has been suppressing for the past 80 years.
PENNSYLVANIA MARIJUANA LAWS are among the strictest in the nation. There were 20,577 marijuana-related arrests statewide during 2012; that’s down from more than 26,000 in 2011, but still high. (And 6,614 of those were in Philadelphia.) As of 2010, we were in the top 12 states for marijuana arrests, as highlighted in a recent American Civil Liberties Union report that also noted blacks are much, much more likely to get arrested for possessing weed than whites. (Here in the city, five times more likely.) Even so, statewide, whites—who comprise 83.5 percent of the population—make up 71 percent of all marijuana arrests.
Recreational marijuana is not legal. Medicinal marijuana is not legal. Getting caught with 30 grams or less can technically land you a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. More than that? A year and $5,000.
In Philadelphia County, District Attorney Seth Williams created the Small Amounts of Marijuana program in 2010, which allows defendants who’ve been arrested for pot possession to have their charges “administratively withdrawn” if they pay $200 and take a drug class. It’s led to the city saving $2 million—but still allows police to arrest and detain a bro for smoking a joint on the sidewalk.
The program was created to stop clogging the municipal court with pot cases and “spending thousands of dollars on analyzing the drugs, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, the court costs, the police standing around and getting overtime,” Williams noted on a recent episode of Radio Times. Now, the vast majority of these cases go through the new system, leaving those arrested with no criminal record.
It’s an improvement—but Philly’s still got a long way to go. The city is the only spot in the commonwealth, in fact, where if you get caught with any amount of marijuana—a joint or a pound—you get put in handcuffs. It’s not a summary violation here like it is throughout the rest of the state, and that alone costs the city a ton of money.
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4