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.
Meanwhile, while statewide attitudes are shifting, we still have a governor who calls pot a “gateway drug.” That’s a problem. As with so many other matters of public policy, Pennsylvania has spent the last three years watching other states make progress from afar. While legalization is on the march in other parts of the country, our own state continues spending $350 million a year just to enforce our outdated laws—which didn’t really ever make much sense in the first place.
IN 1933, THE SAME YEAR that the national prohibition on alcohol ended and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board was founded, it was marijuana’s turn to be outlawed. Pot was banned in the commonwealth—as were, just for good measure, its non-drug cousins in the cannabis family, including hemp, a common industrial material.
Les Stark, a Lancaster-based historian, has written a book, Hempstone Heritage, about hemp farming in bygone Pennsylvania. His research shows that prior to banning cannabis, Pennsylvania was among the country’s foremost hemp producers. In fact, when William Penn founded the state in 1681, he intended for Pennsylvania to get into the hemp business—and two years later, the state’s General Assembly passed its first act regarding the production of the resource.
Per the 1683 legislation, Pennsylvania paid farmers a bounty per pound of hemp produced; that bounty was increased over the years several times. It was a successful incentive: Fifty years later, in 1733, production had grown to the point where the General Assembly repealed the subsidy because the state could no longer afford it.
The original Hempfield Township, Stark says, was named for the “vast quantities” of hemp raised there; between 1720 and 1870, more than 100 hemp processing mills could be found in Lancaster County alone. “We sent vast quantities of hemp down to Philadelphia to be made into rope in shipyards,” Stark says, “because Philadelphia had a big shipbuilding industry.” While much of the hemp was spun into sails and rope, he adds, a vast majority was used in Lancaster for clothing.
It also helped put one of Philadelphia’s most industrious families into the history books. Fitler Weaver & Co.’s Cordage Works was based in Frankford, at what was then the corner of Germantown Road and Turner’s Lane. According to the 1868 publication A History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860 by Leander Bishop, Edwin Troxell Freedley and Edward Young, the hemp rope manufacturer had facilities which were “so complete, and the machinery so perfect, that the Cordage cannot be surpassed in quality by any made in the world.”
Owner Edwin Fitler, who would eventually become mayor of Philadelphia and the namesake of Center City’s Fitler Square, maintained his hemp operation even after that factory burned down in 1866. He was quite a stickler for professional operations, it seems: “The system he has organized is so complete that the affairs of a vast and complicated business are managed with the minimum of trouble and labor,” according to A History of American Manufactures. “Every evening, an amount of the various kinds of hemp on hand is taken, and the quantity of the different sizes of rope in store is made up, and thus; every morning he has a complete and exact report of the state of affairs ready for his guidance during the day.”
Of course, today, Fitler would have no such manufacturing business—no warehouse at 23 Water Street in what’s now Old City, no mention in any book, and probably no Philadelphia neighborhood named after him.
So when Pennsylvania made marijuana illegal on May 22, 1933, the state sort of shot itself in the foot.
Pot use had soared nationally during the Prohibition period. Pennsylvania’s governor at the time, Gifford Pinchot, was a big-government progressive Republican of the Teddy Roosevelt circle. And he wasn’t just a devout forest conservationist, but a moralist as well: He expended the political effort to ban weed—and, incidentally, to “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible” through the PLCB. And though you wouldn’t get high even if you smoked a tree-trunk sized joint of hemp—it contains 0.3 percent THC—that cannabis plant was banned, too. “They saw the writing on the wall that liquor prohibition was coming to an end, so they made marijuana illegal,” says Stark. (The law banning marijuana in Pennsylvania was an amendment to a previous bill, passed in 1917, which banned cocaine and heroin from public consumption.)
The first known person arrested for a pot-related offense in the commonwealth was 81-year old Enos Schaefer, a hemp farmer who would admit to growing the plant but maintained he did not know it was illegal. He told police he was using the seeds to feed his chickens.
SCHAEFER’S 1938 ARREST may have been Pennsylvania’s first, but it was far from the last. Today, the state spends about $325 million per year policing marijuana offenses, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That money is just a portion of the $41.3 billion the United States spends annually on the enforcement of all drug laws. According to a 2010 Cato Institute study by Jeffrey A. Miron, an economist at Harvard University, about $8.7 billion in enforcement costs would be saved by legalizing marijuana across the country.
“The overall principle of banning things is problematic from the get-go,” Miron says. “When you’re banning things, you’re keeping people from purchasing things they think they want to purchase. Standard economics says that’s a bad idea—you create a lot of perverse incentives and unintended consequences: crime, corruption, poor quality control. And bans are very ineffective at achieving their stated goal—in this case, reducing drug use.”
Interestingly, a Pennsylvanian said that precise thing about marijuana 40 years ago.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs as a response to the anti-Vietnam hippie movement of the late 1960s and as part of his tough-on-crime agenda. Looking for someone to lead a commission that would put out a report justifying that drug war, Nixon went to a political ally: Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Raymond Shafer.
Two years later, on March 22, 1973, Shafer’s report would be the opposite of what Nixon, now reelected but afflicted by the Watergate scandal, had been looking for. The 480-page Drug Use in America: Problem in Perspective warned against “the creation of ever larger bureaucracies, ever increasing expenditures of monies and an outpouring of publicity” that a war on drugs would bring. It also noted that the prohibition of marijuana might be illegal: “Regardless of whether or not the courts would overturn a prohibition of possession of marijuana for personal use in the home, we are necessarily influenced by the high place traditionally occupied by the value of privacy in our constitutional scheme.”
The Shafer report also said: “The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.”
Nixon wasn’t impressed. He went ahead with the war on drugs anyway.
Thirty-five years later, Philadelphia state Rep. Mark Cohen wrote and introduced the Raymond P. Shafer Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, named after the former governor who’d tried to head off the drug war. First introduced in 2009, Cohen’s legislation has never received a vote, though it did get hearings. The Shafer Act would require people to register as medical marijuana patients and pay a $50 fee after getting the recommendation from a doctor.
Cohen has re-introduced the bill this year; if it passed tomorrow (it won’t), we’d be the 19th state in the country with legal medicinal pot. “By legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes,” Cohen said during a legislative session, “there should be a reduction in criminal prosecutions, as well as a weakening of the existing criminal networks selling marijuana.” He estimates that medical marijuana would bring in around $25 million in tax revenue per year.