Philadelphia voters will get the chance to send their state representatives a clear message this November with a referendum on marijuana legalization on the ballot.
While multiple Pennsylvania cities, including Philadelphia, have enacted ordinances decriminalizing low-level cannabis possession, legislation to enact broader reform statewide has consistently stalled. So the City Council has placed 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.
The resolution stipulates 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.”
While it would not make any immediate changes to the law if approved by voters in the state’s most populous city, it would add 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.
But it does seem that some GOP lawmakers are beginning to see the writing on the wall.
A Republican Pennsylvania senator and former federal law enforcement agent announced on Monday that he will be filing a bill to legalize marijuana in the state—and he’s asking his colleagues to join him in the effort.
Asked about both the senator’s new proposal and the Philadelphia referendum, Fetterman told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday that “it just speaks to the inevitability” of reform statewide.
“As I’ve said time and time again, [legalization is] a farm bill. It’s a veterans bill. It’s a jobs bill. It’s an economic development bill. It’s a revenue bill,” the official, who is running for U.S. Senate, said. “It’s an incredibly powerful public policy lever that, once we pull it in Pennsylvania, everyone will be better off.”
Just last week, a separate pair of state lawmakers—Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D)—formally unveiled a legalization bill they’re proposing. That one would specifically prioritize social equity for communities most harmed by the war on drugs.
At the same time, a bipartisan Senate duo is also in the process of crafting separate legislation to legalize cannabis across the commonwealth. Sens. Sharif Street (D) and Dan Laughlin (R) announced some details of the proposal earlier this year, but their bill has yet to be formally introduced.
While broad cannabis legalization proposals have not moved forward in the GOP-controlled 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.
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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.
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.
Meanwhile, voters in more than a dozen Ohio municipalities will decide on ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana next month.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.