With the start of 2014, Colorado became the first state since the 1930s to allow the sale of marijuana in retail establishments for recreational use. As a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney who handles a lot of marijuana cases, I am frequently asked when Pennsylvania will legalize cannabis for either medicinal or recreational purposes. Well, my stock answer is both simple and vague: some time in our lifetimes, but no time soon.
I can see why some people naturally liken America’s current marijuana situation to Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990. Logic dictates that if Colorado and Washington are like Hungary and East Germany, then surely all the other states with archaic and oppressive marijuana laws will want to jump on the train to freedom and personal liberty. East Bloc countries would have opted for capitalism and democracy much sooner, had their oppressive one-party regimes not had the backing of the Soviet Union. Any time a Warsaw Pact regime felt threatened by internal dissent, it could count on Moscow to send in troops and KGB agents. But when Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the USSR would no longer provide support, the East Bloc regimes collapsed internally. Likewise, the United States federal government had previously threatened to enforce its draconian marijuana laws if the states had the audacity to end prohibition. Like Gorbachev, the Obama administration is now allowing the states to decide their own fates.
Despite some obvious similarities with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, there are some key distinctions. When it comes to marijuana, not all states are like East Germany, Hungary, Romania and Poland, which were yearning to be free. Many US states have solid prohibitionist majorities in their legislatures, and most US governors are prohibitionists. And Pennsylvania just happens to be a state with prohibitionist majority in the General Assembly, and a hardcore prohibitionist governor who once pursued marijuana cases with gusto when he was the Pennsylvania Attorney General.
I do not see prohibitionists losing their solid majority in Pennsylvania anytime soon. First of all, Pennsylvania is one of the most gerrymandered states in the Union. Although we frequently elect Democrats in statewide elections, the state House and Senate districts have been drawn up to all but assure a permanent GOP majority. Currently, Republicans tend to be more heavily prohibitionist than democrats, but that could change in the future if the libertarian wing of the GOP grows in influence.
With the GOP being the party of big business, one would think that it would support an end to prohibition because it would boost the economy and allow legitimate businesses to profit from the cannabis industry. If only it were that simple. Thanks to our German heritage, the beer industry is very powerful and entrenched in Pennsylvania, and beer industry campaign contributions flow primarily to Republicans. Beer, wine and spirits producers do not want competition from legal marijuana. They have influential lobbyists in Harrisburg; the cannabis industry does not. Although it would benefit public health and safety for Pennsylvanians to drink less and toke more, it would cut into the profits of the powerful and politically connected alcohol industry.
It is not just the ruling prohibitionist party, which one must consider, but the demographics of the voters who put them in power. After all, the prohibitionists do not control state government through gerrymandering alone. Pennsylvania has the fourth highest percentage of senior citizens of any state, and age is the single greatest demographic feature linked to marijuana attitudes. The older one is, the likelier one is to support prohibition, while the youngest voters overwhelmingly support an end to prohibition. To compound things further, older people vote far more frequently than younger people, assuring that the views of older generations will always be disproportionately represented in elected government.
But all is not doom and gloom. Time is on the side of anti-prohibitionists. As older people die off, they are being replaced by pro-legalization voters, who themselves are far more likely to have toked than their parents and grandparents. Social attitudes worldwide have been rapidly changing with respect to cannabis. Among younger people, marijuana is as socially acceptable as alcohol, and actually, even more socially acceptable than cigarettes.
Marijuana prohibition will end in Pennsylvania. The only question is when and under what circumstances. In the mean time, be careful. You don’t want to be like Winfried Freudenberg, the last East German killed trying to flee cross the Berlin Wall, just eight months before the East Germans opened what they had called the “Anti-Fascist Protective Barrier.”
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Marijuana-Related-Offenses.shtml