02/13/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

The Man Who Would Get Pennsyltucky High: A Conversation With Daylin Leach

Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) remains one of the most stalwart proponents of progressive politics in Harrisburg, which, given that the Republicans control both legislative houses and the governorship, is a little like being a proponent of cats in a dog pound. Nonetheless, this too shall pass and he is a patient man. It is this sort of long ball thinking that inspired Senator Leach to craft a bill that would legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania. On Monday he introduced the bill into committee. While it may not pass this year or next, it's only a matter of time. When it comes to public opinion on marijuana, well, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. We have reached the tipping point, says Leach, and it's just a matter of time until the politicians and the law to catch up with the will of the people.

Jonathan Valania: Before we get into the marijuana stuff, I wanted to ask you what inspired you to get into public service in the first place? Was there an "a-ha" moment?

Senator Daylin Leach: Well there was sort of an "a-ha" period time which is, I grew up in the 60s and I watched first hand on television the civil rights movement. So, you know, African Americans getting shot with water cannons and being beaten when trying to order at restaurants and so forth. That really just galvanized me. I immediately said, I want to spend my life trying to stop that sort of thing. Now, that's grown into other issues over time, but I think that what really, sort of, politicised me were those early days watching the news accounts of civil rights, you know, situations.

Jonathan Valania: And do you think if Alabama sheriff were hosing down marijuana users that we'd have change by now?

Senator Daylin Leach: (laughing) Well you know, it was very -- those images were very powerful and did actually create a lot of change and lifted a lot of the indifference for people, particularly in the North who didn't really understand what was going on. I think if people understood what was going on with marijuana users -- now, a college student with straight As sells a joint to his roommate, suddenly his academic career is over, his professional career is over, he's facing prison and his life will never be the same because he'll have a permanent criminal record. I think people would see how tragic and cruel this policy is.

Jonathan Valania: Don't you think that we're at the point where public opinion has completely shifted on this? That political opinion is lagging behind public opinion and it's really just a matter of political will at that point? But what's providing political cover are these entrenched special interests that want to maintain the status quo because they profit from it. I call it the prison industrial complex. You have all these small town police forces that are under-funded and they have become so dependant on this federal drug war money. Can you speak to that?

Senator Daylin Leach: Well, I mean first of all it's important to keep in mind there's a whole organization called LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, who were post-marijuana laws. But there is, there does seem to be this weird irrationality to this issue. Prohibition is 75 years old. It hasn't been revisited in that time and some people, have an almost visceral, like, 'oh my God, we can't even talk about that' attitude about it. If we were starting from scratch, we would never have the policy we have now, where people go to prison for smoking a plant, but people drink alcohol and that's fine. I mean, anything you can say bad about marijuana, you can say far worse about alcohol. But yet one, we're not only legalized, we're in the business of selling alcohol in Pennsylvania. The state of Pennsylvania sells alcohol, but you know, marijuana users are treated as criminals. It's a completely irrational policy. Nothing -- you know, we would never do this from scratch. So the question is, why the resistance to change? And you know, I've been struggling with this. I think part of it is marijuana has become sort of symbolic for the cultural divide that opened up in the '60s and so a lot of people on the other side of that divide can't let go of that innate reaction. When they think of marijuana, they think of someone who looks like Jimi Hendrix, you know, protesting the war. In reality, the average marijuana smoker now looks more like Dick Cheney. But we have to convince people that this is not part of some larger radical agenda. This is a perfectly mainstream thing to do. And we are seeing that in other states. We're seeing that in Washington, we're seeing that in Colorado, we're seeing that in California which is de facto legalized marijuana. Even in Philadelphia they're not prosecuting marijuana anymore. Public opinion is shifting dramatically and very quickly on this and that's why this will inevitably pass. It may take a couple of years, but this will pass.

Jonathan Valania: Why don't you describe the legislation you're proposing...

Senator Daylin Leach: Well the legislation I proposed legalizes marijuana. Now, it's important to distinguish that from decriminalizing, which would be a step forward, but an inadequate step forward because decriminalizing only says you won't be prosecuted. It doesn't set up a system of taxation so we would leave hundreds of millions of dollars on the table every year that we could be gaining to build schools and roads. It also doesn't regulate it. We need marijuana to be regulated because right now, people are forced to buy it, if they want to use it, on the proverbial street from some criminal who may have laced it with PCP or God knows what. You don't know the potency of it, you know. During prohibition of alcohol, people died from drinking moonshine whiskey and stuff that they had no idea what they were drinking. Now if you want to drink something, you go into the state store, you buy a bottle of Grey Goose, you know what you are getting. The same thing needs to be true of marijuana. That's why legalization is so important and it legalizes it for all purposes, medical, recreational, whatever you want to use it for. But only for people over 21. And in terms of regulation, my bill would treat marijuana almost exactly like alcohol in every context.

For example, you can't drive while intoxicated, that's currently illegal, and continues to be illegal, you can't drive while intoxicated on marijuana. You have to be 21 years old to get it. The smoking ban that we passed in restaurants, where people can't blow tobacco smoke on you while you're having dinner, that would apply to marijuana as well. Anywhere that it was prohibited to smoke cigarettes, it would be prohibited to smoke marijuana. And so it would regulated like those other products.

Jonathan Valania: Okay, yeah. Can you outline a little bit how this would look, would the state be involved in selling it?

Senator Daylin Leach: There's several ways to do this. We can debate whether a state store system is a good system or not, but we have one. That may change over time, but currently we have one. And it's an infrastructure that's already designed to check IDs, to deal with an intoxicant, to collect taxes, and so I thought we can just plug right into that. Sell marijuana at state stores, maybe beer distributors as well and you know, it would be regulated and taxed and dealt with much like, you know, you would go and buy a bottle of wine, you would go in and buy, you know, a quarter ounce of marijuana. It would be the same exact thing.

I'm not particularly wed to any method of distribution. I just want the the insanity of prohibition to stop, I want the lives that are being destroyed no longer to be destroyed, and I want the 350 million dollars a year we're spending prosecuting 250,000 people we arrest for marijuana to stop being spent and I want to collect the billion dollars plus a year we can collect with taxes on marijuana and its related industries. And that's really what I want to see, but you know, I thought to ease people's concerns going forward, we have an infrastructure that's in place that people are comfortable with, initially we can start with that infrastructure.

Jonathan Valania: Do you have any numbers or projections or studies on what the state could take in in tax money, what PA could take in in tax money if we did this?

Senator Daylin Leach: Well yeah. I mean, it's a little difficult because it depends on the tax rate and it depends on how many people use how much marijuana. There was a Harvard study recently that said there was over a hundred billion dollars available in terms of new economic activity and taxation.

Jonathan Valania: Per year?

Senator Daylin Leach: Per year. I read a good article that suggested taxing marijuana to the point where it costs about the same as a similar level of intoxication with alcohol. Having three drinks is approximately one joint in terms of intoxication level. You would tax a joint at the rate of three drinks. There was a study recently that said over a million Pennsylvanians a year use marijuana which is just you know, another point which is that prohibition among all its other failings just doesn't work. But, if a million Pennsylvanians use marijuana a year and the average marijuana smoker according to studies smokes 3-4 joints per week, that would be about four million joints a week. So let's say you know, I mean if it was, depending on, I mean I'm trying to extrapolate per year, but my math is terrible, but it would be about, if you taxed a buck a joint, it would be about $4 million bucks a week, times 52 weeks would be about $200 million dollars right there, putting aside any other related economic developments. Like distribution, like paraphernalia, like, you know, whatever it is. So that's $200 million, approximately, dollars plus the $350 million you saved by not prosecuting people, that about $550 million dollars that we know we would get, the state. That is enough money to solve out pension problem and to restore all the funding for cash assistance for people who lost it under the Corbett administration, the poorest people in Pennsylvania. Or it's enough money for a big tax cut if you're coming at it from the other political side of the fence. So that's an awful lot of money we're leaving on the table by not doing that and again --

Jonathan Valania: How would that apply to the the school funding cuts?

Senator Daylin Leach: Well, I mean it would eliminate the need to, you know, we could completely restore funding for the public schools. I mean, it's a huge amount of money and it's every year and it probably would grow and become very stable like alcohol taxes are very stable. And so, why wouldn't we do this? And in fact, I think over time, this is what's going to drive the issue, because keep in mind, everyone was against gambling 40 years ago. There was only one place in the country you could gamble: Las Vegas. Now there's 48 states that have gambling because the people realized there's just too much money involved and society doesn't end and in a free society people should be free to do things with their lives that they want to do and now as a result I live a mile from a casino.

Jonathan Valania: So you are introducing this bill this Monday morning. How does this work? It's introduced to what, into committee?

Senator Daylin Leach: Well, it's introduced, generally we file it with the clerks office being that the majority leader then, the president pro tem then assigns it to a committee. I'm not sure which committee it will go to, either state government or health, I'm guessing. In the short term, it's a tough slog because Governor Corbett is not going to sign it into law. Long term, it's -- this is inevitable. We will not be here 10 years from now talking about prohibition. Prohibition will be like it is now for alcohol, will be a quaint relic of the past that we sort of giggle at and wonder why we ever thought that was a good idea.

Jonathan Valania: Okay, last question. Have you ever smoked marijuana?

Senator Daylin Leach: I have. I mean, in high school. I went to high school in the '70s, everyone was doing it. I don't smoke it now because I'm a runner, I'm a vegetarian, I try to be healthy and, you know, pouring hot gas over your lungs probably isn't a good idea. No one's advertising marijuana as a health food, but it's much less of a danger than alcohol or tobacco and people who use it are not criminals. Criminal law should be to protect property and it should be to protect people, not to try to micromanage other people's personal lifestyles.

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