Bipartisan Pennsylvania Lawmakers Team Up On Marijuana Legalization Bill As Push For Reform In The State Heats Up
Pennsylvania is becoming something of a hotbed for marijuana legalization legislation, with a Democratic state lawmaker on Tuesday announcing his intent to file a reform bill that he’ll be working on with a Republican senator who announced his support for the policy change a day earlier.
There are also two other Pennsylvania legalization proposals that have been separately announced—one of which was formally introduced late last month and the other still being drafted.
Rep. Amen Brown (D) is the latest legislator to enter the mix, issuing a cosponsorship memo that briefly describes the legislation he’s preparing and calls on his colleagues to support the measure.
And while there are certain differences between his memo and that of Sen. Mike Regan (R), who circulated his own cosponsorship memo on Monday, the two of them discussed their shared interest in ending prohibition in interviews with the press on Tuesday. They expressed optimism that there may be a way to enact the reform in a bipartisan fashion.
Brown wrote in the new memo that by “enforcing and continuing to enforce drug laws prohibiting possession of small amounts of cannabis, we are clogging our court dockets, overcrowding our prisons, and holding down individuals and communities in most need of support, opportunity, and investment.”
“This situation cannot stand in a fair society, and I will not stand for it. And, to my colleagues on both sides, it is on us to implement policy that is sound and reformative—undoing unjust policy that has negatively impacted Pennsylvanians far too long,” he wrote. “We must take a practical, expeditious approach to ending the serious inequities that cannabis prohibitions created.”
While there’s no text available yet for the forthcoming bipartisan bill, Regan, who has a background in federal law enforcement, placed a strong emphasis on the need to end criminalization to free up police resources and said some tax revenue would be allocated to law enforcement under his bill.
Brown also acknowledged that spending taxpayer dollars on marijuana enforcement is a wasteful and harmful approach that disproportionately impacts communities of color. But his memo, unlike Regan’s, also says his bill will “incorporate a novel social equity and investment platform designed to elevate the individuals and communities hardest hit by disproportionate enforcement of low-level cannabis possession laws.”
Legalizing marijuana: Two Pa. lawmakers have joined forces in a bipartisan effort to get it done – https://t.co/YHcvBeE59Q
More to come…. https://t.co/eZVtfDzDvX
— Amen Brown (@AmenBrownPHL) October 5, 2021
It will do so, he said, “by making a suite of opportunities available to qualified individuals and ensuring new businesses owned by qualified individuals have all the tools, training, and capital necessary to succeed over the long term.”
“Legalizing and regulating cannabis is simply the right thing to do—ensuring that an equity lens is applied and that injustices caused by enforcement of drug laws are redressed,” he wrote. “It is right for my constituents. It is right for the economy. It is right for the Commonwealth.”
Speaking with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Brown said “the social equity component is going to be key, just making sure that everybody can have access to this industry.”
Regan recognized that this reform push will be an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled legislature and it’s “going to be a very convoluted process” with “so many things we need to consider.”
But, he said, “my leadership is interested in what Pennsylvania wants.” Polling shows that voters in state are ready for legalization.
“We plan on holding some hearings and doing some things and making the case,” the GOP senator said. “I think at some point we have potential where we can get leadership on board.”
But a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R) tempered expectations, telling the Inquirer that there’s “no significant support for the legalization of recreational marijuana in the House Republican caucus.”
One issue that will need to be negotiated concerns expungements for prior cannabis convictions. While Regan said, “I think we can get there” on the issue, he signaled that such a provision would need to be limited to people with non-violent convictions.
“I think it’s so important that we’re smart about the way we approach this and not just throw something together that’s going to be amended nine ways to Sunday,” Regan said. “Let’s put our collective heads together and put something out that people are going to say, ‘Wow, I think that’s a great move.’ That’s our goal. We’ll see what happens.”
Brown told PennLive that lawmakers are “going to meet somewhere to get this thing done no matter what it takes.”
Advocates are encouraged to see such a strong push for reform in Pennsylvania, especially one that’s bridging partisan divides.
Just last week, a separate pair of state lawmakers—Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D)—formally unveiled a legalization bill they’re proposing. That one would prioritize social equity for communities most harmed by the war on drugs, in part by allocating 15 percent of revenue for community reinvestment.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday that there may be disputes between legislators over how tax revenue should be distributed, but the Republican senator’s proposal overall is “significant” because it breaks with the largely partisan sentiment surrounding legalization in the GOP-controlled legislature.
Gov. Tom Wolf (D) told KDKA on Tuesday that a bipartisan approach to legalization “would be a great thing. I think the time is right.”
Last week’s unveiling of the Democratic-led House legalization bill also comes as a bipartisan Senate duo is also in the process of crafting separate legislation to legalize cannabis across the commonwealth. Sens. Sharif Street (D) and Dan Laughlin (R) announced some details of the proposal earlier this year, but their bill has yet to be formally introduced.
Unlike that measure, the one that Brown and Regan are working on would not provide a home cultivation option for adults.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia City Council has placed a referendum on the local November ballot urging the state to enact legalization. The hope is that the local vote could further motivate the legislature to move ahead with legalization.
While broad cannabis legalization proposals have not moved forward in the GOP-controlled legislature, Pennsylvania senators heard testimony last month on a bill to protect medical marijuana patients from being prosecuted under the state’s “zero tolerance” DUI laws.
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Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R) first introduced an earlier version of the bill in June 2020. She said at the time that the state needs to “ensure that the legal use of this medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction.”
Months after the standalone reform legislation was introduced, the Pennsylvania House approved a separate amendment that would enact the policy change.
Outside the legislature, Wolf said earlier this year that marijuana legalization was a priority as he negotiated the annual budget with lawmakers. However, his formal spending request didn’t contain legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.
Wolf, who signed a medical cannabis expansion bill in June, has repeatedly called for legalization and pressured the Republican-controlled legislature to pursue the reform since coming out in favor of the policy in 2019. Shortly after he did that, a lawmaker filed a separate bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
In May, Wolf pardoned a doctor who was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for growing marijuana that he used to provide relief for his dying wife. That marked his 96th pardon for people with cannabis convictions through the Expedited Review Program for Non-Violent Marijuana-Related Offenses that’s being run by the Board of Pardons.
Overall, legalization is popular among Pennsylvania voters, with 58 percent of residents saying they favor ending cannabis prohibition in a survey released in April.
Another poll released in May found that a majority of voters in the state also support decriminalizing all currently illicit drugs.
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