FILE - PA Jennifer Smith 2-24-2021

Jennifer Smith, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Drug and Alcohol programs, speaks remotely Feb. 24, 2021, during a hearing of the state House Appropriations Committee.

(The Center Square) – Gov. Tom Wolf’s call to legalize marijuana and the ongoing opioid crisis were among the issues discussed at a recent budget hearing between a Pennsylvania House panel and the head of the state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Jennifer Smith, secretary of the agency, met with members of the House Appropriations Committee and shared her take on various issues and budgetary items within her purview at the meeting.

Wolf has joined a growing chorus of other mostly Democrat governors across the U.S. and is calling for the legalization of marijuana. In recent weeks, Wolf said profits from regulatory fees could help Pennsylvania with its financial recovery efforts related to COVID-19.

State Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, asked Smith for her take on the marijuana legalization debate, particularly as it relates to Pennsylvania.

“Great question,” Smith said, in response. “I have the most difficult time answering that one.”

While Smith did not offer a pat “yes” or “no” answer on whether she believed it should be legalized, she did weigh in on a related issue.

“I wholeheartedly believe that we have to move toward decriminalizing offenses,” Smith said. “I wholeheartedly believe in expunging records of individuals who have those charges on their records.”

If lawmakers were to implement some or all of Wolf’s call to legalize marijuana, Smith said she believes it would be prudent to undergo a comprehensive, ongoing review of data related to accidents, suicides and other serious incidents to see if there are any correlations.

“I think it’s important to watch these statistics,” Smith said.

Smith said labeling marijuana a so-called gateway drug is a difficult task, though she did preface the remark by stating people seeking substance abuse treatment for highly addictive drugs typically report using marijuana.

State Rep. James Struzzi II, R-Indiana, said he was pleased – at first blush – to see a decline in opioid deaths in the past year, according to the most recent available data.

Based on updated statistics, Pennsylvania has recorded 3,954 deaths related to opioid overdoses in 2020, down 504 cases from the 2019 statistics of 4,458 deaths.

But Struzzi said he dug deeper into the data and learned actual nonlethal overdoses were on the rise in a year marked by a pandemic, leading him to comment, “To me that, is a big concern.”

The growing availability of naloxone to treat narcotic overdoses in emergency situations has been cited as one reason behind a rise in nonlethal cases.

In her testimony, Smith said the year-over-year statistics could prove even more downbeat when all data is sorted out in the next six to nine months.

Speaking to the process involved in medical examiners reporting causes of death and other related factors, Smith said, “There is quite a bit of lag time – and, of course, COVID has played into that.”

“We absolutely expect those final (2020) numbers to go up,” Smith said. “I think we’re going to see that rise, unfortunately.”