Antony Davies & James Harrigan: PLCB not the way to go for marijuana
Gov. Tom Wolf recently came out in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania, and legislative support followed quickly in the form of House Bill 1899, introduced by Rep. David Delloso of Delaware County. The bill would legalize recreational marijuana, but it also calls for expunging marijuana possession convictions from criminal records, releasing those currently behind bars for marijuana possession, and protecting employees who test positive for a “non-intoxicating level of cannabis.”
Unfortunately, Delloso has wrapped these great ideas in a terrible one. His bill establishes the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board as the sole marijuana retailer in Pennsylvania. The PLCB is an albatross that Pennsylvanians have been trying to get off their backs and out of their wallets for decades. It was about to die an overdue and well-deserved death. But here comes Delloso breathing unwelcome life into it again.
In 2002, 55% of Pennsylvanians said they favored privatizing state-run liquor stores. In a 2013 Commonwealth Foundation poll, 66% (and 55% of union households) favored abolishing state-run wine and liquor stores. In a 2015 Franklin & Marshall poll, those favoring privatization fell to 49%, but still outnumbered the 37% who opposed it.
Pennsylvanians dislike the PLCB because it delivers the price, service and convenience one would expect from a government-protected monopoly, but with no apparent upsides. Repeated studies have shown that state-run alcohol monopolies don’t yield fewer alcohol-related deaths or alcohol-related traffic fatalities, and may even contribute to greater rates of binge and underage drinking.
Proponents purport that the PLCB is a source of revenue for the general fund. They are partly correct. Over the past six years, the PLCB has contributed more than $700 million to the state’s general fund. But Pennsylvania doesn’t need the PLCB to generate that revenue. A tax on private retailers would generate the same revenues with the same, or lower, retail prices.
While the PLCB provides no clear benefit to Pennsylvanians, it provides one to legislators and their political allies. Politicians who control a business can count on the support of cronies who profit from that business. And while it has taken decades for Harrisburg to revoke the PLCB’s monopoly status by granting liquor licenses to private businesses, much the same way most of the rest of the country does things, Delloso wants to grant the PLCB another monopoly.
Delloso claims that state-store employees are a more trustworthy sales force for restricted substances because they already sell liquor and wine. But how much training does he think is necessary to check a birth date on a license? More importantly, he doesn’t ask the obvious question of who will take more care in keeping marijuana out of the hands of minors, a state employee or a business owner who stands to lose his license, his business and his shirt if he is careless.
It took Delloso almost no time to figure out how to capture the great idea of marijuana legalization for the benefit of politicians and their cronies. If he succeeds, it will be decades of the PLCB fiasco all over again. And, beyond cronyism, what reason is there for the state to monopolize the marijuana (or any other) industry in the first place?
Antony Davies is associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James Harrigan is managing director of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast, Words and Numbers.