August 27, 2020
In order to deal with the budgetary fallout brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, states are getting creative with legislative solutions. In Pennsylvania, this means exploring legalizing marijuana as a way to recover a quickly disappearing tax base. Governor Tom Wolf (D) has asked the legislature to explore a new proposal that would legalize recreational marijuana to fund other areas of the economy that are suffering. The move comes four years after Wolf signed legislation approving marijuana for medicinal use.
The proposal would join 11 other states that allow for the legal sale of marijuana. Unlike most of these other states, the express purpose of Pennsylvania’s proposed change is to absorb the economic shock felt by small businesses and the hospitality industry due to coronavirus shutdowns. Wolf claims that legalizing marijuana would fund grants and forgivable loans for small businesses in a state-run program that would be modeled after the federal COVID-19 small business relief program. Half of the proposed grant funding would be slated for historically “disadvantaged” businesses.
The governor’s proposal would also fund “restorative justice programs,” he said, though there were few details as to what that may look like. A statement from Wolf’s office explained that the restorative justice funds would “give priority to repairing the harm done to crime victims and communities as a result of marijuana criminalization.” Additionally, Wolf is asking that the state’s legislative body “pursue criminal justice reform policies,” implying that what these restorative justice programs look like has yet to be determined.
Getting this proposal through the Republican-approved legislature might prove a bit more difficult. In a tweet, the Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said, “Gov. Wolf has spent the last six months turning his back on the people’s representatives in the General Assembly despite our numerous attempts to work with him to fight this pandemic. It is disingenuous for this governor to put forward an unaffordable legislative agenda and require taxpayers to bail him out of his unilateral mandates that have devastated their lives and livelihoods.”
Despite whatever ill feelings members of the opposing party may have toward Wolf, the proposal won praise from his counterparts in other states. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted his support for Wolf, noting that his own state is considering legalizing marijuana in this November’s elections in a measure that would also include provisions to correct a “historical wrong.” Murphy has noted in the past the disparate arrest and sentencing for Black New Jersey residents as opposed to white residents. He also, like Wolf, sees potential in legalization to absorb the impact of an economic downturn. Speaking to reporters in July, Murphy said: “It’s a job creator. It’s a tax revenue raiser. It checks a lot of boxes. I hope we’ll get there sooner than later.”