Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf may be the state’s most high-profile public official calling for recreational cannabis these days, but that wasn’t always so. During his six years in office, the York County native’s shifting views appear molded by a cabinet stacked with some staunch pro-cannabis advocates.
From the success of the Department of Health’s medical marijuana program to hiring former Democratic challenger John Hanger as his secretary of policy and planning to aligning himself with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, it seems logical that Wolf would eventually find himself stumping for the policy as a panacea to state budget problems.
“The time has come to legalize adult-use cannabis in Pennsylvania,” he said last month. “It will help our economic recovery, it will help Pennsylvania families and it will help make our criminal justice system fairer.”
Except, the Republican-held Legislature finds little value in pursuing the issue now – especially after seven months of a protracted power struggle over the governor’s economic restrictions enacted as part of the state’s emergency response to the pandemic.
Wolf and his Democratic allies insist legalization could net a minimum of $300 million in annual tax revenues, though conservative analysts place the figure much closer to $100 million, at best, or about 4 percent of what’s needed to address budget challenges.
And, Republicans say, the deficit – the direct result of depleted tax revenues as the state forced businesses to shut down in March and April – were consequences Wolf administration accepted as part of their “draconian” mitigation strategy. So why bail him out now with an “illogical” policy with few guarantees that creates more spending, not less, House GOP spokesman Jason Gottesman asked.
“Gov. Wolf pursuing recreational marijuana at this time is not only illogical, but inconsistent,” he said. “Pennsylvania is in the middle of an opioid addiction emergency that takes over 300 lives per month. Now is not the time to be legalizing a recreational drug.”
Dr. Kevin Sabet, a former Obama administration adviser and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a nonprofit dedicated to opposing marijuana commercialization, also criticized Wolf’s logic and likened the policy to “legalizing speeding to pay for more hospitals.”
“Today’s marijuana isn’t Woodstock weed – it is highly potent and toxic to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems,” he said after Wolf again pushed the policy as part of his fall agenda. “This is the opposite of what one should be encouraging during a global pandemic.”
It’s not just about money for Wolf, however. Part of his policy redirects tax revenues from cannabis sales to restorative justice programs meant to undo the decades of disparate drug law enforcement in communities of color. The state has been recognized as a leader in criminal justice reform since the passage of the Clean Slate Act in 2018 and for Democrats, decriminalizing marijuana is a logical extension.
“I stand with the governor and lieutenant governor in support of legislation legalizing adult-use cannabis because this issue is about far more than money,” said Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, last month. “This is about criminal and social justice reform and righting past wrongs. It is about creating a flourishing new industry to help keep people safe and educate them on responsible use.”
“Especially during a pandemic, we need to provide every avenue for relief and this one is well overdue,” he added.
Wolf and Fetterman first endorsed legalized adult use cannabis in September 2019 after the latter completed a statewide listening tour that concluded a majority of residents supported the measure, as well as decriminalization and expungement of small possession convictions.
Before that, Wolf wasn’t on the record about supporting recreational marijuana – only the medicinal form, for which his administration developed a program in 2017 that has since collected $1.3 billion in sales, according to the Department of Health.
In fact, Wolf stated while on the 2018 gubernatorial campaign trail that the state wasn’t ready for legalized recreational use. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, criticized Wolf during a 2019 appearance before the Pennsylvania Press Club for reversing his opinion on the issue after the election.
Corman and Senate Republicans remain opposed to the idea as premature and still hold concerns that full legalization could undermine efforts to use the medicinal version to combat the opioid crisis.
The administration did not respond to specific questions from The Center Square about why Wolf’s opinion shifted.
Gottesman said whatever the reason, the policy contradicts the governor’s other stated priorities – like getting people back to work and children back to school.
“Clearly making the legalization of a recreational drug one of his main priorities during a global pandemic is hypocritical distraction away from those shared goals,” he said.
Sabet said it’s a “canard” that the commercialization of cannabis equates to social justice. Rather, it hurts the very same communities it purports to help.
“The pot industry disproportionately places pot shops in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, areas that historically lack the resources to combat predatory marketing and increased substance abuse,” he said.
He concludes that the policy push is nothing more than “grand promises of social equity” that will “go up in smoke while the wealthy, white corporate suits in the industry laugh their way to the bank.”
“There is no reason why Pennsylvania’s experience would be any different than Chicago’s, where the City Council’s Black Caucus threatened to delay legal sales when it was clear not a single person of color would hold a license to sell marijuana in the city on day one,” he said.
Wolf’s business connections to the marijuana industry remain tangential at best. His cousin-in-law’s bid for a dispensary license in 2018 failed, and Hanger left his cabinet in 2016 to chair Franklin Labs, a licensed grower in southeastern Pennsylvania, to which he is no longer attached.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a Wolf administration spokesperson, said rumors that the governor himself stands to gain from any marijuana-related industries are “patently false.”