One toke over the line

State Sen. Daylin Leach went to Denver to do some firsthand research on the burgeoning pot industry there.
State Sen. Daylin Leach went to Denver to do some firsthand research on the burgeoning pot industry there. (STEVEN M. FALK / File)

Sen. Daylin Leach sees Penna.'s future in cannabis.

Posted: August 04, 2014

State Sen. Daylin Leach, sponsor of separate bills to legalize medical and recreational marijuana, took a recent trip to the appropriately named Mile High City for a crash course on weed.

Yes, he inhaled.

"This is not a bunch of hippies sitting around on beanbag chairs," said Leach of the burgeoning pot industry in Colorado, which became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in January. Of his familiarity with the product, the 53-year-old Montgomery County Democrat offered the boomer defense - "hey, I went to school in the '70s" - but said he had not indulged in two decades.

Turns out marijuana has become more potent since then. Two tokes on a vapor pen, and Leach "giggled at a lot of stupid stuff in the bar." Later, in the hotel room, he watched the bromantic comedy I Love You, Man, "which I somehow found strangely fascinating."

Then he conked out.

Friends, your tax dollars at work.

Mayor Nutter traveled to France and watched the Tour de France. Leach went to Denver and giggled.

During Senator Leach's Excellent Adventure, he and three staffers toured two grow facilities, a processing lab, and two dispensaries, plus interviewed stoners and the unstoned. The $5,000 trip was funded by the senator's general staff budget.

"I think legislators should do far more of these trips," Leach said. "We often vote on things we know nothing about." No argument here.

The medical-marijuana bill was unanimously approved in committee. Leach is confident it will be approved by the Senate during the scheduled vote in September. Some conservatives support marijuana for medical use, now legal in 23 states. Which is par for the course in Pennsylvania, a mid-to-late adopter of progressive issues.

Recreational marijuana, Leach believes, would create vast state revenue. Leach projects annual Pennsylvania sales of more than $200 million, state revenue dependent on the set tax rate and license fees, added to considerable savings in law enforcement. In the first five months, Colorado collected $23.5 million in direct fees and who knows how much in ancillary taxes on munchies.

"For most people, if marijuana became legal it would have no impact on their lives," Leach said, "while the state would have more for roads, transportation, and schools."

Pot for pupils - although perhaps, like the cigarette tax to fund Philadelphia schools, the state House wouldn't interrupt summer recess to vote on that bill, either.

"It's immoral to ruin people's lives on irrational beliefs," Leach said. "Anything you can say bad about marijuana, you can say worse about alcohol." He refers to our current marijuana laws as "prohibition and another government program we can't support."

Pennsylvania averages 25,000 arrests for marijuana offenses each year, with enforcement costs anywhere from $150 million to $350 million, Leach said. A 2010 Harvard study put the state's expenditures at $1 billion. Enforcement is also profoundly biased by race, according to an ACLU report. In Pennsylvania, black males are five times more likely to be arrested for the same marijuana offenses as their white counterparts.

State Stores?

"We are creating drug cartels and drug gangs," Leach said. "Every dollar we give to legitimate entrepreneurs, we take out of the hands of criminals." True, although "entrepreneurs" include Big Tobacco, which is panting to cash in on weed.

As Pennsylvania remains in the hooch business, Leach suggests legal marijuana be sold at our state liquor emporiums, possibly behind the counter with those travel-size pints. "Instead of buying from a guy named 'Greenie' behind the bowling alley, this is something where you can go into a safe, well-lit store in a strip mall and know the potency," said Leach, who clearly shops at a different State Store than mine.

But potency is a problem. People don't know their limits, especially when legal products - including child-tempting cookies - are in their infancy. Entrepreneurs would be wise to put weed in broccoli.

Wait and see

While Leach extolled Colorado's progress based on his three-day mission, it's too early to know what's working and what's not, especially in terms of health and road safety.

Revenue projections may also change as competition increases with legalization in more states, akin to what happened with the over-proliferation of gambling. It could be the cannibalization of cannabis.

Ordinarily, I'm a critic of Pennsylvania's wait-and-see approach of letting other states adopt progressive measures. But in this case, patience is prudent. I don't think we're ready for Potsylvania.

Leach believes change is coming sooner than we think, anticipating a large number of states voting on referendums in 2016, when more young people vote in a presidential election. "Once you have a third to half the nation with a legal marijuana system, I think prohibition will crumble," he said. "Exposure plus demographics equals inevitability."


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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