In 2014, the Colorado state legislature passed a bill to legalize recreational marijuana usage, becoming the first state to do so in the U.S.
Other states followed in Colorado’s wake, and now, 15 states and Washington, D.C., allow people who are 21 and older to purchase recreational pot.
The debate over legalization has been prominent in federal and state courts, primarily with those arguing for legalization citing excessive criminal sentences for possession, and those arguing against citing marijuana’s potential role as a gateway drug.
In Pennsylvania, medical marijuana is legal, but the legislature is still debating the topic of recreational usage — Gov. Tom Wolf is one of the industry’s backers.
In a February media release, Wolf said he believes the commonwealth has built a “successful medical marijuana program,” and it should begin to legalize marijuana to help businesses and aid restorative justice.
As the state government weighs the issue, students at Penn State have their own opinions on the possible legalization.
Shea Sarsfield said he agrees with the push to legalize recreational usage but said “lawmakers need to understand that it's not just about the economic benefits… but also the justice system in years past.”
For example, Sarsfield (sophomore-biochemistry and molecular biology) said he believes past marijuana criminal sentences were harsher than needed — especially given the circumstances of arrest.
“People — especially minorities — were being arrested at rates that weren’t humane,” he said, “and if we legalize [marijuana], so many people would not be punished for a crime that really shouldn’t have been punished to begin with.”
In the Netflix documentary series “Patriot Act,” host Hasan Minhaj said marijuana should be legalized — but in a way that preserves economic opportunity for small businesses owned by people in marginalized communities.
Minhaj spoke on the business side of recreational marijuana, noting the taxes that would be levied would present a problem for many small business owners, who would be overtaken by large pharmaceutical and agricultural companies controlling the marijuana market.
Student David Terach agreed with Minhaj’s research, voicing his concerns that the groups of people who the legalization of marijuana is designed to help the most may not actually experience the benefits of it.
“The most important thing... is making sure the right people are aided by this — especially in terms of economic opportunity,” Terach (freshman-mechanical engineering) said.
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Ava Paxson said she understands the risks posed from marijuana as a potential “gateway drug” but feels it often results in unfair punishment on those in marginalized communities.
“Obviously the severity of [marijuana] is not as bad as other drugs like opioids or fentanyl, and that should be taken into account,” Paxson (freshman-biology) said. “People should want it being used in the smartest way possible, and I think we are on the right track to do that.”
Multiple niche areas of any marijuana bill will be taken into account when legalized, according to The New York Times — such as sentences for underage possession, furnishing and taxation.
In the area of decriminalization, Paxson said Pennsylvania lawmakers should take into account previous sentences for marijuana-related crimes and whether those punished for them should remain in prison.
“There’s so much they have to do, and if they don’t get it all right, I don’t think people are going to be happy with the results,” Paxson said.
Cristopher Morales said he believes the focus of lawmakers in their debates should be on those who stand to either lose or gain the most — marginalized communities.
“People who have suffered the most over the years from marijuana legislation deserve better, and it’s up to lawmakers to give that to them,” Morales (sophomore-computer science) said.
According to Morales, the last three decades of America’s justice — including the “war on drugs” established by former Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — should make it apparent to lawmakers that underrepresented communities need to be accounted for in any legalization.
Likewise, Kristiana Vasti said she believes the current group of legislators in Congress — with new backgrounds and more youth — will draft the right legislation for the United States.
The Pennsylvania State legislature is currently held by a 28-20 Republican majority — the party that has traditionally opposed the legalization of recreational or medicinal marijuana. But with Democratic Wolf backing legalization, there remains cautious optimism that legalization could be near.
“I don’t know about Pennsylvania, but Congress is becoming more diverse and younger,” Vasti (freshmen-food science) said, “and that should lead to better laws for people who have been poorly treated in the past.”