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Bipartisan Pennsylvania Senators Say They Have The Votes To Legalize Marijuana, But Governor Needs To Step Up Engagement



Bipartisan Pennsylvania lawmakers say the votes are there to pass a marijuana legalization bill as soon as this year, though they stressed that the governor needs to work across the aisle to get the job done—and argued that it would be helpful if the federal government implemented its proposed cannabis rescheduling rule sooner rather than later.

During an X Spaces event on Wednesday, Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D), as well as Rep. Amen Brown (D), discussed the prospects of enacting cannabis reform in the current session, expressing tentative optimism even though there are still outstanding issues to resolve.

There also appeared to be agreement that the 20 percent tax rate for marijuana that was included in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s (D) latest budget was too high. And while there may be debate among members about Democrats’ push for equity-focused provisions in whatever deal emerges, Laughlin indicated that GOP leadership is more amenable to some version of the reform than might meet the eye.

“I’ve been advocating for this for almost three years now, and I will say that, in that time, the attitudes amongst the Senate Republicans has certainly softened,” Laughlin said during the social media event hosted by Pablo Zuanic, managing partner at Zuanic & Associates.

“I have what I would refer to as quiet support, where, if we put it up for a floor vote, I think our side could provide enough votes to get to 26” to pass, he said. However, he added that there are still members “concerned about putting their name on it right now,” particularly those in “more rural districts.”

Street, who is sponsoring legalization legislation with Laughlin this session, offered a somewhat more optimistic perspective, saying that he thinks, “pretty ambitiously,” that lawmakers will get a cannabis bill to the governor “by the end of the session.”

“I know it’s going to take some work, but I think we can get it done,” he said. “I think that, in terms of the timing, I think there’ll be sales…by the beginning of the by July 2025.”

Laughlin left open the possibility that the reform is delayed until next year, even if he hopes to see bipartisan consensus sooner.

“I think there’s still a lot of issues to be addressed before we get this done,” he said, adding that legislators don’t necessarily need to pass legalization by the end of the current fiscal year and have until the end of the session in November to finish the job.

Street for his part, said he agrees that there’s “still some discussion that’s going to take place before we have a vote” and that there are “probably 26 votes for it if we had a vote.” However, he said “there won’t be a vote until leadership is comfortable that they’re ready to have a vote.”

To that end, there have been questions about the willingness of Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R) to move a marijuana bill, despite increased bipartisan support for the reform. She’s previously suggested that she doesn’t see that happening until the federal government moves to end prohibition.

Laughlin said he’s “talked to her about the descheduling on the federal level,” and “she feels that that would make that a much easier process for her to be comfortable” to act on state-level cannabis reform.

But the Biden administration’s current proposal that’s moving through the process wouldn’t federally deschedule cannabis. It would simply move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), so it’s unclear whether that would move the needle for Ward in the same way as full federal legalization might.

Last month, the governor’s office also said that the Biden administration’s move to federally reschedule marijuana “adds support” for an effort to legalize cannabis in Pennsylvania.

In the interim, Laughlin said he’s continuing to have conversation with GOP colleagues who are still on the fence, making the case that marijuana legalization is a civil liberties issue that they should get behind, and that the current unregulated market represents a public health and safety concern. Meanwhile, the existing medical cannabis program is “like joining Sam’s Club,” he said.

The senator, who is running for reelection, also pointed out that when he’s talking to colleagues, he’s noted that his advocacy for cannabis legalization and sponsorship of reform bills has only been “politically expedient” for him. He said might have “irritated” some people who are strongly opposed to cannabis, but by and large he’s seen a benefit to embracing the increasingly bipartisan issue.

“This is 2024, and there is rapidly growing support for this,” he said. “I think people are starting to take notice, so I’m hopeful that we will, at a minimum, get close this year.”

“The public is ready. I think more and more members are coming on board. And I think we’re getting closer and closer every day,” he said.

With bordering states like New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Ohio all either having or implementing adult-use legalization, the lawmakers who participated in Wednesday’s virtual event said that adds urgency to follow suit, so that residents aren’t going out of state to obtain cannabis and so that Pennsylvania can stop losing out on tax revenue and other economic opportunities to its neighbors.

But part of getting a legalization across the finish line means this session means having a governor who’s willing to hold those bipartisan and bicameral conversations so they can reach a workable compromise, Laughlin said.

“The governor certainly carries a lot of weight in Pennsylvania, and if we could get him to be a little bit more active in the negotiation process, that would be helpful,” he said. “But I also think that if we don’t get this done this year, I feel pretty strongly that, next session, we will get there. The public opinion on cannabis has changed drastically just in the last eight years that I’ve been in the Senate.”

Street gave the governor more leeway when it comes to his work on the issue so far, saying “at some point, somebody’s gonna get folks to roll up their sleeves, figure this out and hash out of deal.”

“The governor is a smart guy. He’s a talented guy,” he said,” and Shapiro’s leadership on the issue “makes it that much more likely to get done.”

The conversation with the Pennsylvania legislators comes just days after bipartisan state lawmakers announced their intent to file a new bill to legalize recreational marijuana, soliciting support from colleagues.

Street was also among advocates and lawmakers who participated in a cannabis rally at the Pennsylvania State Capitol this month, where there was a significant emphasis on the need to incorporate social equity provisions as they move to advance legalization.

Laughlin, for his part, also said an event last month that the state is “getting close” to legalizing marijuana, but the job will only get done if House and Senate leaders sit down with the governor and “work it out.”

Warren County, Pennsylvania District Attorney Robert Greene, a registered medical cannabis patient in the state, also spoke at that rally. In January, Greene filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to overturn a ban preventing medical marijuana patients from buying and possessing firearms.

Two Pennsylvania House panels held a joint hearing to discuss marijuana legalization in April, with multiple lawmakers asking the state’s top liquor regulator about the prospect of having that agency run cannabis shops.

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Also in April, members of the House Health Committee had a conversation centered on social justice and equity considerations for reform.

That took place days after Brown (D) filed a marijuana legalization bill that he described as “grounded in safety and social equity.”

“I’m here to get this done,” Brown said at a recent rally, noting that he and other people he knows have a “personal experience” with current marijuana policy.

At a prior meeting in March, members focused on criminal justice implications of prohibition and the potential benefits of reform.

At another hearing in February, members looked at the industry perspective, with multiple stakeholders from cannabis growing, dispensing and testing businesses, as well as clinical registrants, testifying.

At the subcommittee’s previous cannabis meeting in December, members heard testimony and asked questions about various elements of marijuana oversight, including promoting social equity and business opportunities, laboratory testing and public versus private operation of a state-legal cannabis industry.

And during the panel’s first meeting late last year, Frankel said that state-run stores are “certainly an option” he’s considering for Pennsylvania, similar to what New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) recommended for that state last year, though a state commission later shied away from that plan.

The cannabis proposal the Brown filed in the House in April is an identical companion to a bipartisan Senate cannabis legalization measure that was introduced last year.

North Carolina Senators Attach Medical Marijuana Legalization Amendment To Hemp Bill

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