Philadelphia Voters Approve Marijuana Referendum Calling For Statewide Legalization
Philadelphia voters are sending a clear message to lawmakers, strongly approving a referendum on marijuana legalization as a growing number of state senators and representatives are stepping up their push to get the reform enacted across Pennsylvania.
The measure 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.”
Preliminary results on Tuesday evening showed the proposal leading by a 73 percent to 27 percent margin, with 96 percent of electoral divisions in the city reporting.
While multiple Pennsylvania cities, including Philadelphia, have enacted local ordinances decriminalizing low-level cannabis possession, legislation to enact broader reform statewide has consistently stalled. The City Council responded by placing a referendum on the local ballot with the hopes of further motivating the legislature to move ahead with legalization.
Councilmember Derek Green (D) sponsored the measure to put the cannabis question on the ballot, and it was unanimously approved by the Council and signed by the mayor in June.
While the resolution would not make any immediate changes to the law its approval by voters in the state’s most populous city adds pressure on state legislators to act.
Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) are already on board with legalization and have encouraged lawmakers to make the policy change. However, the GOP-controlled legislature has so far resisted calls from both the top officials and the public.
Advocates are hopeful that lawmakers are positioned to push reform through, however.
Last month, a much-anticipated bipartisan Senate bill to end prohibition in Pennsylvania that has been months in the making was formally introduced.
Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Sharif Street (D) unveiled the nearly 240-page legislation after first outlining some key details back in February.
Also last month, Rep. Amen Brown (D) announced his intent to file a reform bill that he’ll be working on with Sen. Mike Regan (R), who recently expressed his support for the policy change.
A separate pair of state lawmakers—Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D)—also formally unveiled a legalization bill they’re proposing.
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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.
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 about broader policy changes last month, telling The Philadelphia Inquirer that there’s “no significant support for the legalization of recreational marijuana in the House Republican caucus.”
Fetterman, who is running for U.S. Senate, told Marijuana Moment in a recent phone interview 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.
Wolf, for his part, said that a bipartisan approach to legalization “would be a great thing. I think the time is right.”
While broad cannabis legalization proposals have not moved forward in the Republican-led legislature, Pennsylvania senators heard testimony in September 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, a Pennsylvania lawmaker recently introduced a bill 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.
Also last month month, 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.
A survey released last month 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.
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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.