A Pennsylvania Senate committee on Monday held the first in a series of hearings on legalizing marijuana for adult use in the state.
The issue was taken up by the Senate Law and Justice Committee. While reform bills have been introduced in past sessions and the reform has the support of Gov. Tom Wolf (D), this marks the first time a legislative panel has debated recreational legalization in the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania General Assembly.
Stakeholders, law enforcement representatives and local lawmakers participated in Monday’s hearing, and issues discussed included whether creating a regulated market would be sufficient to eliminate illicit sales, how police would be affected and the impact on impaired driving.
Today state lawmakers are taking the first real step to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania.
I'm excited to see this moving forward. It's what Pennsylvanians say they want.
For me to sign, legislation must rightfully include decriminalization and restorative justice measures.
— Governor Tom Wolf (@GovernorTomWolf) February 7, 2022
Sen. Mike Regan (R), who chairs the committee, plans to use feedback that he receives from this and subsequent hearing to inform his own forthcoming legalization bill. He and Rep. Amen Brown (D) circulated a cosponsorship memo last year to build support for the reform.
Brown recognized at Monday’s meeting that ending prohibition would not totally eliminate the illicit market, but “if we legalize cannabis, it would not be as large as it is” and “so I believe if we make the right decision, we can definitely impact the black market to send them in a different direction.”
Committee members focused largely on the law enforcement aspects of legalization, rather than specific legislative proposals like a bipartisan measure sponsored by Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) that was introduced last year.
Earlier today, I took part in the Pennsylvania Law and Justice Committee Hearing on Recreational Marijuana.
It was an excellent way to learn more about how law enforcement and prosecutors deal with marijuana-related matters in their communities. pic.twitter.com/QDt6uy0kbL
— Senator Dan Laughlin (@senatorlaughlin) February 7, 2022
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.
The legalization hearing comes just days after Pennsylvania medical cannabis regulators announced a mandatory recall of hundreds of marijuana vaporizer products that contain additives not approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
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The panel’s next hearing, which Regan said will be held with the next month, will focus on how other states have approached recreational legalization laws.
“We need to discuss these issues out in the open,” Laughlin said at the hearing. “In my opinion, by continuing to ignore this issue, we are supporting criminal enterprises because, for all intents and purposes, we de facto legalized adult-use cannabis in Pennsylvania through the medical program.”
Several members described the idea that Pennsylvania will legalize cannabis as an inevitability that the legislature needs to address and advance.
“We can talk about the finer points at another hearing on how best to do that,” Laughlin said, “but we are experiencing the absolute worst, in my opinion, almost in the whole country by having a medical program and having a black market at the same time.”
Meanwhile, Street is behind another recent cannabis measure to provide state-level protections to banks and insurers that work with cannabis businesses.
— Senator Sharif Street (@SenSharifStreet) February 7, 2022
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 Philip Steffan.