HARRISBURG, June 20, 2014 — State Sen. Anthony H. Williams convened a forum this week to have a public discussion about the future of cannabis regulations in Pennsylvania.
Dubbed “The Great Marijuana Debate,” 2,700 people participated in discussions over the course of two nights with a public forum June 14 at the University of Pennsylvania and a tele-town hall meeting on the evening of the 17th.
Williams, the Senate Democratic Whip, admitted to being “historically, politically and personally against the legalization of marijuana. But, he added, he wanted to begin the dialogue about the pros and cons of legalization in light of evidence in Colorado of economic and social benefit to the state after legalization.
“I have not arrived at the position that I’m going to be okay with legalizing marijuana, but I think it is very important to have the conversation about it,” Williams said.
Williams said Pennsylvania is losing more than $100 million in revenue because it has not legalized, regulated and taxed marijuana. Also, he said, young African-American men are disproportionately punished for marijuana use.
“I don’t think we can afford to continue to pay for this generation, who is now trotted off to prison, for selling a relatively small amount of marijuana. It costs us more money to prosecute them than it would to cite them and place them in some kind of drug rehab program or job training, which would teach them a different career,” Sen. Williams said.
Philadelphia City Councilman Jim Kenney said 4,200 Philadelphians were charged in 2013 with the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Eighty-four percent of them were black and most of them, he said, were young men between the ages of 18 and 30.
Kenney said the time it takes cops to process those marijuana users equaled 2,100 eight-hour shifts.
“The worst part however, in my opinion, is the fact that all of those young people are now saddled with an arrest record that makes it impossible for them to get a job,” Kenney said.
On the other side of the argument, Bishop J. Darrell Robinson said he opposed the legalization of marijuana.
“As a nation and as a people, I’m more concerned about our people, about our families, and about our community,” he said.
Philadelphia Police Department Capt. Tom Davidson also opposed legalization, noting: “The last thing we need in our society is further impairment in public.”
Assistant DA Kirsten Heine said going after marijuana users and dealers is still viewed as a crime-fighting tool.
“The benefit for the police department is they’re going to come into contact with a lot of people, they’re going to identify a lot of people, and they’re going to find people that we’re looking for that we might not otherwise come into contact with,” Heine said.
George Forsythe, a former Maryland State Policeman and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, argued that America’s war on drugs is creating more problems than the drugs themselves.
“Alcohol has created a lot of problems. Drugs have created a lot of problems. That doesn’t mean it’s a police problem. It’s a mental health problem,” said Forsythe. “Let the mental health professionals handle it instead of law enforcement officers.”
Other participants in “The Great Marijuana Debate” on Saturday included Derek Rosenzweig of Philly NORML and Pennsylvanians for Medical Marijuana; Dr. Jahan Marcu, Americans for Safe Access Multidisciplinary Scientific Advisory Board and the 2012 “Cannabis Researcher of the Year;” and Rachelle Yeung, Esq., Marijuana Policy Project.
Sen. Williams continued his discussion about legalizing marijuana Tuesday evening during his first telephone town hall meeting. The event attracted more than 2,500 listeners during this hour-long gathering.
An informal poll of the callers during the tele-town hall found that 63 percent of them favor the legalization of marijuana.
As Williams said during his wrap-up at the University of Pennsylvania on Saturday, the legalization of marijuana in the commonwealth “is in the embryonic stages.”
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