A bipartisan duo of Pennsylvania senators rolled out a bill on Wednesday that would legalize marijuana in the state. And it’s that bipartisan component that advocates hope will convince the GOP-controlled legislature to advance the policy change.
Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) are introducing the legislation, which would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess cannabis from licensed retailers. The possession limit would be set at 30 grams, and only medical marijuana patients would have an option to cultivate up to five plants at home.
Regular people, farmers, and small businesses will benefit. Micro Cultivation licenses will give regular people access to the emerging cannabis market in PA. https://t.co/EjttpZBfoX #CannabisCommunity #LegalizeIt
— Senator Sharif Street (@SenSharifStreet) February 24, 2021
This marks the first time that a Republican legislator in Pennsylvania has sponsored an adult-use legalization bill—a significant factor given that the legislature under GOP control has long resisted legalization. Laughlin says that he’s not necessarily in favor of cannabis use, but he views regulating the market to be “the most responsible approach” to the issue and a superior alternative to criminalization.
“I ran for public office because I wanted to solve problems—and you can only solve problems when you are honest about what people think and how people really feel,” he said during a press conference on Wednesday. “It’s clear to me that public attitudes towards marijuana have changed dramatically in the past decade, maybe more than any other issue in recent memory.”
“As a public official, I believe it is my role to bring people together to ensure adult-use marijuana legalization done right,” he said. “Our proposal prioritizes safety and social equity. And furthermore, it will let Pennsylvania’s robust agricultural industry participate in marijuana cultivation.”
Street said the legislation is “pragmatic both economically and socially. It is both the right thing to do and it will help the commonwealth do well.”
Under the proposal, which hasn’t yet been formally introduced, a Pennsylvania Cannabis Regulatory Control Board would be responsible for managing both the medical and recreational programs and issuing marijuana business licenses. Cannabis products would be subject to the state’s six percent sales tax, in addition to a 10 percent excise tax, according to details first reported by The Erie Times-News.
Revenue from those taxes—which is estimated to become $400 million to $1 billion annually—would go to a new Cannabis Regulation Fund, as well as a Cannabis Business Development Fund that would provide financial aid, loans, grants and technical assistance to social and economic equity businesses.
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Social and economic equity businesses would be defined as those are at least 75 percent owned and controlled by people who’ve lived in a “disproportionately impacted area” for at least five of the previous 10 years, or who’ve been arrested or convicted of certain cannabis offenses.
Regulators would be able to issue 528 dispensary licenses for the initial rollout of the program. Of those, 480 would be able to sell both medical and recreational marijuana products and 48 would have to sell only medical cannabis. Additionally, they could issue 100 cultivation business licenses.
People could have their criminal records expunged for convictions related to activity made legal under the legislation.
Social Justice: If you've been imprisoned for possession or use, non violent offenses, this bill is for you. If you've been on the short side of cannabis regulation, like many black and brown communities, this bill is for you https://t.co/EjttpZBfoX #CannabisCommunity #LegalizeIt
— Senator Sharif Street (@SenSharifStreet) February 24, 2021
Also in the bill, there’s language providing protections for firearm owners who use marijuana—though that wouldn’t nullify federal rules that preclude people from buying guns if they admit to consuming cannabis, regardless of state law.
“This year our neighbors in New Jersey have signed adult use marijuana into law and our neighbors in New York are likely to legalize,” Laughlin and Street wrote in a cosponsorship memo. “It is our duty to taxpayers to seize the initiative and legalize marijuana concurrently with bordering states. Failure to do so risks permanently ceding hundreds of millions of dollars of new tax revenue as well as thousands of jobs at a time when taxpayers can least afford it.”
But Laughlin told the Times-News that, even with a budget shortfall exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, his sponsorship is not about the money.
“I know there are many people who believe this will be a large revenue stream, but that’s at the very bottom of my list of reasons to introduce this bill,” he said. “This is where we are as a country. The majority of people want this legalized and regulated.”
Gov. Tom Wolf (D), meanwhile, said earlier this month that marijuana legalization is a priority as he begins annual budget negotiations with lawmakers—even though his formal spending request doesn’t contain legislative language to actually accomplish the cannabis policy change.
The governor 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 bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, reform advocates also have a strong champion of legalization in Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D).
The top official, who is running for U.S. Senate, previously led a listening tour across the state to solicit public input on legalization. He’s credited that effort with helping to move the governor toward embracing comprehensive reform.
While Republican lawmakers have resisted these calls, Fetterman has put his support centerstage, including by hanging marijuana-themed flags at his Capitol office.
In an interview with Marijuana Moment last month, he said the decor was removed this week at the behest of certain GOP members who passed a temporary budget restricting the types of flags that can be flown on government property—but he promptly put them back up.
Fetterman also said that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—where voters approved a legalization referendum in November—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously reform its cannabis laws.
In September, the lieutenant governor hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from his counterparts in Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.