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Pennsylvania Governor’s Race Exposes Marijuana Divide

The two major party candidates vying to be Pennsylvania’s next governor are diametrically opposed on the issue of marijuana reform—with one backing legalization and the other insisting that it’s a “stupid idea” that has turned other states into “rat holes.”

As lawmakers prepare for another session when legalization will inevitably be proposed yet again, voters will be making a key decision on whether they usher in an administration led by someone who’s hostile to reform with Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano or embraces cannabis policy reform with the Democratic nominee, Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

The effort to end marijuana prohibition has faced challenges in Pennsylvania. Even after incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who is prevented from running again by term limits, came around to legalization—with the support for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate—the GOP-controlled legislature has failed to advance legalization.

But while the cannabis has been widely discussed in Harrisburg in recent years and the two gubernatorial candidates have clearly contrasting views on the issue, it hasn’t been an especially prominent topic in the 2022 race.

Voters in the state might have seen drug policy reform take the spotlight in the social media spectacle that’s become the U.S. Senate race between Fetterman and TV health personality Dr. Oz, but it hasn’t received comparable attention in the gubernatorial contest at this point.

But a look at the candidates’ records shows that their differences on cannabis policy are stark.

Shapiro has made his position clear: he supports adult-use legalization, believes it could provide an economic boon to the Keystone State and says its time for Pennsylvania to catch up with its neighbors in enacting the reform.

In contrast, Mastriano has peddled dubious claims about the impact of legalization, challenged the current administration’s work to gather Input from the electorate on the issue and voted against modest cannabis reform legislation in the state Senate.

It’s not a very popular position, as 58 percent of Pennsylvanians support legalization, according to a poll released last year.

Even as more voters across party lines have embraced the reform, Mastriano has taken a particularly aggressive stance against legalization. He said during an interview earlier this year that ending prohibition is “a stupid idea” that he opposes, arguing that cannabis is a gateway drug that leads to increased violent crime.

"I mean, there’s nothing good that’s come out of this,” he said of legalization.

In 2018, the senator said that federal data showed that legalization leads more people to drive while impaired—a claim that hasn’t been settled by science—and that it’s “killing our children and other innocent people.” Because of that, he said, “I don’t want this to be legalized. I say no. It’s time to draw a line in the sand.”

“I look at Colorado for instance, and California—other states that have headed in this direction—and all it’s done is destroyed their society. It’s a decay on culture, and long-term, it’s going to create a crisis health-wise, because we hear all the good aspects of cannabis—and there are, of course, medical aspects, God created this plant here—but the abuse of it in smoking it, it has a deleterious effect on your lungs and respiratory system, et cetera.”

Mastriano went on in the interview to argue that places that have legalized marijuana are “turning into rat holes and to third-world back washes.”

Shapiro, meanwhile, has campaigned on legalization and made clear that he would serve as a vocal proponent of the policy if elected governor.

The attorney general said that he has come to realize that “as a chief law enforcement officer, quite frankly I don’t believe that we are made any more safe by arresting people” for non-violent cannabis offenses.

"I think it actually diverts law enforcement resources away from the real challenge, like fentanyl, for example,” he said, adding that he sees economic opportunity in taxing and regulating cannabis as other states in the regions have done.“I think as both a law enforcement leader and as a father—and as a would-be governor—it makes sense for us to take that approach,” Shapiro said.


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