After several Pennsylvania Senate hearings that promoted the legalization of adult recreational marijuana use, the tone was different during a Tuesday hearing in Harrisburg that focused on the impact it would have on children.
Addiction specialists, law enforcement, public health experts, and psychologists urged lawmakers to use caution. They warned of increased use in youth that could harm developing brains and lead to mental disorders like anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia; lower IQ; and ultimately fewer career opportunities.
Today’s marijuana is more potent than it was 20 years ago, according to testimony. But as it is legalized around the country, the perception is, that if it is legal, marijuana must be safe.
“While the product has been literally increasing in danger, the perception of harm has been steadily going down. What we know about perceived risk is, if you think there's a great risk to doing something you're less likely to do it,” Dr. Arron Weiner, psychologist and addiction therapist testified.
“If you're a kid and you do not think it's a great risk, it is more likely that you’re going to use. So what we message out with our policies, matters.”
This hearing was hosted by Republican Sen. Judy Ward, chair of the Aging and Youth Committee, who promised to hold a hearing, offering balance in the state’s lopsided legalization conversation.
“The evolution of the cannabis industry over the past decade has been profound,” Ward said at the start of the hearing. “Currently 37 states including [Pennsylvania] allow for medical marijuana use, and 18 states allow for adult recreational use. As we move the conversation forward, we must address potential detrimental effects legalization could pose to children, just as we do with alcohol.”
She mentioned the risk of secondhand smoke for children, and the many marijuana edibles that look like candy.
Earlier this year, Republican state Sen. Mike Regan, who supports legalization, held three hearings through his Senate Law and Justice Committee, studying the impact of implementing an adult-use marijuana law. During his hearings, numerous representatives of the marijuana industry testified and suggested legislation, but there was no opposing view.
Although Ward attended all of Regan's hearings, Regan did not attend Ward's hearing.
The pressure to legalize adult-use marijuana in Pennsylvania is strong and until now, the conversations have been mostly one-sided, in support of the move. Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman have pressed for legalization and there may be an urgency to make it happen before the end of Wolf’s final term. Fetterman traveled all 67 Pennsylvania countries in 2019, listening to marijuana proponents make the case for legalization. Wolf has touted the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue the state would gain through legalization.
“The purposes of government include to establish and maintain order, provide security, and protect citizens from external threats as well as promote the general welfare,” retired Superior Court Judge Cheryl Allen, who spent 25 years in Pennsylvania’s juvenile court system, testified.
“Legalizing marijuana for recreational use does not serve any of these purposes,” she said.
Allen added that the main benefactors of legalizing recreational use would be the marijuana industry and predicted it would not stop black-market sales or end violence in communities.
“Legalization will not prevent broken homes and traumatized children in the foster care system,” Allen said.
“The research is clear, marijuana use poses an extreme danger to our young people and consequently, our future. They are our most valuable and precious natural resource, and the real purpose of government is to protect those young people so that they can grow into citizens," she said.
"No amount of tax revenue, no amount of contributions to the budget of the state of Pennsylvania, is worth sacrificing the safety and well-being of our citizens, especially our youth.”
Dr. Sheryl Ryan is chief in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Penn State Health, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, and represents the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She has authored numerous clinical and technical reports focusing on marijuana and alcohol.
Ryan expressed support for decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana but not legalization of adult use.
“The brain still continues to develop well into the mid-20s,” Ryan testified. Speaking last, she confirmed what others said, mentioning the negative effect marijuana use can have on psychiatric disorders, and on respiratory illnesses in infants who are exposed during pregnancy to secondhand smoke or on breast milk.
In motor vehicle crashes where marijuana is involved, there is no commercially available test to detect the degree of marijuana in a person. These are all problems that can’t be ignored, she indicated.
“We can reasonably expect that with legalization, the prevalence of marijuana use among both adults and adolescents will increase in our state and will be present in households in greater amounts, or for the first time,” Ryan said.
“We also know that legalization has decreased the perception of marijuana in our youth as being harmful, and this has resulted in an increase in youth using marijuana. We have no reason to suspect that youth in Pennsylvania will react any differently than other states. Thus, greater use assures greater exposure of children and teens to marijuana.”