A much-anticipated bipartisan Senate bill to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania that has been months in the making was formally introduced on Friday. It’s the latest in a string of reform measures that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have been promoting in recent days.
Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) unveiled the nearly 240-page legislation months after first outlining some key details back in February. It would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 30 grams of cannabis, five grams of marijuana concentrate products and 500 milligrams of THC contained in cannabis-infused products.
— Dan Laughlin (@VoteLaughlin) October 7, 2021
Only registered medical cannabis patients would have a home grow option, however, with a maximum of five plants for personal use.
For those who have been following drug policy developments in the Pennsylvania legislature, the past few weeks have proved exceptionally active.
Rep. Amen Brown (D) on Tuesday announced his intent to file a reform bill that he’ll be working on with Sen. Mike Regan (R), who expressed his support for the policy change a day earlier.
Last week, a separate pair of state lawmakers—Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D)—formally unveiled a legalization bill they’re proposing.
While each measure generally seeks and end to marijuana criminalization by creating a regulated, commercial model for cannabis, there are some provisions that make each piece of legislation unique. For example, the proposals vary in how they would approach taxes, revenue and social equity.
With respect to social justice, the new bipartisan Senate bill filed on Friday calls on the courts to “compile records that can be automatically expunged” within six month of enactment. Eligible cases would be those related to low-level possession, including those for distribution (but not sales).
The board would also be required to “develop and implement a comprehensive social equity and economic development program in partnership with the Commonwealth Financing Authority.”
Under the measure, people would need to pay the state’s six percent sales tax, as well as a 10 percent excise tax, when purchasing marijuana products. Revenue from those taxes would go to counties (10 percent), municipalities (10 percent), and 80 percent would support a Cannabis Regulation Fund that also promote social equity.
Of that 80 percent, up to two percent would be allocated to regulators with a newly established Cannabis Regulatory Control Board, which would also take over the state’s medical cannabis program, for implementation costs. Board members would be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.
A Cannabis Business Development Fund would also receive $3 million in marijuana tax dollars annually as part of that 80 percent allocation. That fund is designed to provide low-interest rate loans and grants “to qualified social and economic equity applicants.”
Social and economic equity applicants are defined under the legislation as those with at least 75 percent ownership by individuals who have lived in a disproportionately impacted community for at least five of the last 10 years or those with at least 75 percent ownership by people who have been arrested or convicted over offenses that would be made eligible for expungements under the bill.
The bill would also “pay for outreach that may be provided or targeted to attract and support social and economic equity applicants” and fund “job training and technical assistance for residents in disproportionately impacted areas.”
Any remaining tax dollars would go to the state general fund.
Regulators would be responsible for issuing licenses for the cultivation, micro-cultivation, dispensing and testing of marijuana. There would also be an option for local governments to “authorize or permit the on-premises consumption of cannabis at or in an adult use dispensing organization within its jurisdiction.”
Importantly, the bill stipulates that local governments “may not enact ordinances to prohibit a cannabis business establishment from locating within the unit of local government entirely.”
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The legislation specifically includes language ensuring that people acting in compliance with the act would maintain their rights to own firearms under state law.
While these recent moves to enact reform in the GOP-controlled legislature are encouraging to advocates, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R) tempered expectations this week, telling the Inquirer that there’s “no significant support for the legalization of recreational marijuana in the House Republican caucus.”
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday that he’s optimistic about the prospects of reform with these latest proposals, though he acknowledged that there may be disputes between legislators over how tax revenue should be distributed.
Gov. Tom Wolf (D), for his part, told KDKA on Tuesday that a bipartisan approach to legalization “would be a great thing. I think the time is right.”
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 Republican-led 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.
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.
Separately this week, a bipartisan coalition of Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced a bill that’s meant to promote research into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms for mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
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.
Read the text of the Pennsylvania Senate marijuana legalization bill below: