A key Pennsylvania Senate committee on Monday held the last of three scheduled hearings on marijuana legalization, taking testimony that’s designed to help inform a forthcoming reform bill that the panel’s chairman is actively drafting.
The Senate Law and Justice Committee meeting involved testimony from cannabis reform advocates, former regulators from other states and industry stakeholders.
Sen. Mike Regan (R), who chairs the panel, circulated a cosponsorship memo last year along with Rep. Amen Brown (D) to build support for the reform, and these meetings are designed to give lawmakers added context into the best approach to legalization for the state.
“Legalization of adult-use marijuana is a complex and obviously controversial issue,” Regan said at the end of Monday’s discussion. “We are grateful for the many perspectives, personal experiences and opinions we have received. To all my colleagues on the committee, thank you for your continued participation. I look forward to working together on this important issue for Pennsylvania.”
At an initial hearing last month, much of the discussion focused on whether creating a regulated market would be sufficient to eliminate illicit sales, how police would be affected and the impact on impaired driving.
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The second hearing held late last month centered on varying tax structures and other regulatory approaches that have been created in states like Illinois and California.
While reform bills have been introduced in past sessions and the policy change has the support of Gov. Tom Wolf (D), this latest hearing marks only the third time a legislative panel has debated recreational legalization in the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania General Assembly.
JM Pedini, development director of NORML and executive director of Virginia NORML, spoke about regulatory models and said that in their capacity as a member of the Virginia Governor’s Marijuana Task Force, “one of our principle tasks was recommending the form and function of the new regulatory structure.”
“I can tell you, having examined this issue in many jurisdictions, the best model is one that utilizes a single, cannabis dedicated regulator,” they said, responding to the idea that the existing medical marijuana program and a new adult-use one could instead be controlled by differing regulatory bodies. “This was the recommendation we made in Virginia based on an examination of best practices in several jurisdictions. And based on that experience, I can confirm that Pennsylvania’s program exhibits the challenges presented when a cannabis regulator is cast into an existing department.”
These Pennsylvania hearings have provided a broad overview of the experiences in out-of-state markets, rather than specific legislative proposals like a bipartisan measure introduced last year by Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D).
Those senators also recently filed introduced a bill that would allow medical marijuana patients to cultivate their own plants for personal use. Street had attempted to get the reform enacted as an amendment to an omnibus bill this summer, but it did not advance.
Meanwhile, Street is behind another recent cannabis measure to provide state-level protections to banks and insurers that work with cannabis businesses.
In the interim, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for U.S. Senate this year, said one of his key goals in his final year in office is to ensure that as many eligible people as possible submit applications to have the courts remove their cannabis records and restore opportunities to things like housing, student financial aid and employment through an expedited petition program.
Pennsylvania lawmakers could also take up more modest marijuana reform proposals like a bill filed late last year to expand the number of medical marijuana cultivators in the state, prioritizing small farms to break up what she characterized as a monopoly or large corporations that’s created supply problems.
Additionally, another pair of state lawmakers—Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D)—formally unveiled a legalization bill they’re proposing last year.
Philadelphia voters also approved a referendum on marijuana legalization in November that adds a section to the city charter saying that “the citizens of Philadelphia call upon the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Governor to pass legislation that will decriminalize, regulate, and tax the use, and sale to adults aged 21 years or older, of cannabis for non-medical purposes.”
Wolf, the governor, said last 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.
The governor, 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.
A survey from Franklin & Marshall College released last year found that 60 percent of Pennsylvania voters back adult-use legalization. That’s the highest level of support for the issue since the firm started polling people about it in 2006.
An attempt to provide protections for Pennsylvania medical marijuana patients from being charged with driving under the influence was derailed in the legislature last year, apparently due to pushback by the state police association.
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.