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Legal marijuana: Will Pennsylvanians cross state lines for greener pastures?

“Legal marijuana is widely available within driving distance from Pennsylvania, from NY to NJ to D.C. It’s accessible already — why not legalize it here and keep that revenue in our commonwealth? #LegalizeIt” — April 6 tweet from Gov. Tom Wolf.

In 2006, Atlantic City’s gaming industry generated $5.2 billion in revenue — an all-time high — no pun intended. That year marked an incredible 28 straight years in which the city’s casinos had collectively outperformed the previous year’s revenue total. However, from 2007 to 2015, New Jersey’s gaming industry fell from its lofty mid-aughts perch and saw revenue decrease dramatically, year over year, for the next nine consecutive years. The bleeding wouldn’t stop until 2015, but by then, revenue generated by the industry totaled only $2.6 billion. What could possibly have caused such a precipitous decline and what does that have to do with legalized adult-use marijuana?

While multiple factors likely played a role in the halving of New Jersey’s gaming revenue in less than a decade, one reason for the drop-off is that Pennsylvania legalized casino gaming in 2004 and the Commonwealth’s first casino began operations in November of 2006. Over the next several years, 11 more Pennsylvania casinos would open, and table games joined slot machines as a legal gaming option. As the majority of Pennsylvania’s most populous counties are located within a relatively short drive of New Jersey, part of what had happened to Atlantic City’s casinos was no mystery to gaming industry observers: Pennsylvanians started staying home to gamble. Moreover, in the years following Pennsylvania’s legalization of casino gaming, neighboring states like Maryland and Ohio saw dollar signs and soon followed suit.

On Nov. 3, New Jersians, by a two to one margin, voted in favor of Public Question 1, a legislatively referred constitutional amendment that legalized the possession and use of marijuana for persons age 21 and older and legalized the cultivation, processing, and sale of retail marijuana. Now that New Jersey is out in front of Pennsylvania in legalizing a previously unlawful and stigmatized activity, questions are being raised by no less than the Commonwealth’s own Governor as to why Pennsylvania would continue to prohibit the adult use of recreational marijuana when it’s readily available just across the border.

But will Pennsylvanians travel to buy marijuana the way they did to gamble “down the shore” for decades while casino gaming was illegal at home? Residents of Ontario, Oregon, likely have an opinion on the topic. Politico recently reported that the town of only 11,000 residents just across the border from Idaho — one of only two states that bans all forms of marijuana — is host to nine marijuana dispensaries.

Located within a 50-minute drive of Boise and 40 percent of Idaho’s residents, Ontario’s City Manager estimates that Idaho residents make 1,600 trips across the border every day to, among other things, visit the town’s dispensaries, according to Politico. With 17 U.S. states and the District of Columbia now permitting the recreational use of marijuana, a quick Google search reveals this example to be more rule than exception.

According to Gallup, in 2019, a record 68 percent of Americans polled said that marijuana use should be legal.

By comparison, when casino gaming began in Pennsylvania, Gallup polling revealed that only 60 percent of Americans said gambling was morally acceptable (that figure now sits at 69 percent). In 2019, only 13 years after Pennsylvania’s gaming industry began, the State would record its highest revenue total ever — $3.4 billion — the third highest state total in the country that year. As public opinion regarding marijuana legalization currently sits ahead of where gambling’s approval stood at the beginning of the Commonwealth’s gaming industry, it’s not a stretch to assume that Pennsylvanians will cross the New Jersey border in droves to buy cannabis like they did for decades to chase slot machine jackpots and hit blackjack. And they won’t even have to drive all the way to Atlantic City to do it.

Nico Pento is government affairs director at Terrapin Care Station, Jersey Shore.

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