FILE - PA Tom Wolf, John Fetterman 9-25-2019

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (left), alongside Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

After years of being noncommittal on the topic, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf came out Wednesday in favor of the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Speaking at an afternoon news conference and accompanied by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, long an advocate for full legalization, Wolf said that removing the criminal penalties for possession of marijuana had widespread public support.

“We now know the majority of Pennsylvanians are in favor of legalization, and that includes me,” Wolf, a Democrat, said. “I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together, especially the criminal justice reforms I am proposing today, which will have an immediately positive influence on thousands of families across Pennsylvania.”

The proposed criminal justice moves include expunging the records of individuals convicted of minor offenses related to marijuana possession.

Fetterman spent much of his first few months in office this year touring the state on a listening tour of all 67 counties on the topic of legalization. He produced a report in favor of legalization and said that the majority of the feedback he received from state citizens was similarly in favor of the concept.

“We’ve heard you, and this announcement today is our earnest effort to bring about the changes you’ve told us you want,” Fetterman said.

Pennsylvania has had a legal medical marijuana program since 2016, which made the state the 24th in the U.S. to allow therapeutic use of cannabis. But some lawmakers who came out in favor of the medical program have been more skeptical of full legalization.

House Republican leaders issued a statement Wednesday afternoon lamenting the move by the governor at a time when the state is dealing with a substance abuse crisis.

“Our state is the midst of an opioid epidemic,” the GOP leaders said. “Gov. Wolf signed a disaster declaration over the crisis and renewed the declaration six separate times since January 2018. We do not believe easing regulations on illegal drugs is the right move in helping the thousands of Pennsylvanians who are battling drug addiction.”

During a February appearance before the Pennsylvania Press Club, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman questioned why Wolf, a Democrat, had only abandoned his longstanding opposition to full legalization after he won a second term in office in 2018.

“I mean, this is a gubernatorial campaign issue,” Corman said. “This is something that should have been out there for public discussion.”

Corman also expressed concern that moving forward with full legalization while the medical marijuana program was still in its infancy could imperil access to ailing Pennsylvanians who stand to benefit – a concern that House leaders echoed Wednesday.

“For Gov. Wolf and Lt. Gov. Fetterman to choose now as the time to promote recreational marijuana is irresponsible and raises serious questions about their judgement over what they believe is the right direction for young Pennsylvanians,” the House statement said. “Our caucus has no plans or interest in legalizing recreational marijuana.”

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, meanwhile, has been a staunch advocate of full legalization, arguing repeatedly that the increased revenue from taxing marijuana use would generate a much-needed influx of cash to the state’s coffers.

In July 2018, alongside Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, DePasquale released a report claiming that full legalization would lead to an additional $581 million in annual revenue while also serving to decrease costs for the criminal justice system.

“Let that number sink in – $581 million, conservatively, without a broad-based tax increase on any single Pennsylvanian,” DePasquale said at the time. “Just imagine what good we could do with that in Pennsylvania.”

Regional Editor

Dave Lemery is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship newspaper was named best weekly in Illinois, and he has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.