In many ways, Pennsylvania appeared poised to legalize cannabis for adult use during the legislative session set to end in November. Governor Tom Wolf has repeatedly called for legalization since last year, after Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman conducted a legalization listening tour of every county in the state. A majority of Pennsylvanians support legalization, and recently, Wolf held several press conferences to make the case for cannabis dollars as a budget boost amid COVID-19. Voters in neighboring New Jersey just legalized cannabis for adult use, along with three other states on Election Day.
Still, one major hurdle to legalizing cannabis looms in Pennsylvania: the Republican-controlled state legislature.
Pennsylvania’s legislative session ends November 30. Will Wolf, Fetterman, and Democratic lawmakers be able to sway enough Republicans to pass a bill before then, or will Pennsylvanians have to wait to see what happens until the next session begins in January? To find out, Cannabis Wire spoke to the sponsors of the bill that would legalize cannabis, Senators Daylin Leach and Sharif Street, as well as to leading Pennsylvania Republicans, Majority Leader Jake Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, and other state lawmakers.
While New Jersey has already become a talking point for Lieutenant Governor Fetterman, and will likely emerge as one for lawmakers as well, the focus in recent weeks has been on budget gaps created by COVID-19.
“These times call for creative policy,” Senator Sharif Street told Cannabis Wire. “And we aren’t afraid to use that creativity that needs to be found during a pandemic.”
By “creativity” he means SB 350, an adult use bill co-authored by Street and Senator Leach that would not only legalize cannabis but bring money to the state treasury. Both Democratic senators see this bill as an innovative and bipartisan solution to the economic issues that Pennsylvania faces as a result of the pandemic. A recent Independent Fiscal Office report concluded that the state government faces a $5 billion shortfall over the next two years. Street argues that SB 350 would ease some of the fiscal pressure, generating $500 million annually in tax revenue for the state after the first year of adult use sales.
“This bill will mean we won’t have to cut school funding, fire departments will still operate at the same capacity, and other government programs that citizens rely on will keep aiding Pennsylvanians,” Street said.
Street and Leach are quietly confident SB 350 will pass in the legislature. In addition to providing raw revenue, they say, it is an alternative to a more controversial solution to the budget shortfall, especially among Republicans: raising taxes. “The money has to come from somewhere,” Street said. “And the primary suggestion would be a broad-based tax increase. When you poll Pennsylvanians’ preference on broad-based tax increases versus legalization, the vast majority leans towards legalization.”
The legal hemp industry in the state may have eased the path to broader cannabis acceptance. The 2018 Farm Bill removed cannabis plants with .3% THC or less, also known as hemp, from the federal Controlled Substances Act, and hemp fields have sprouted from coast-to-coast—including in Pennsylvania, where dairy farmers have begun transitioning into hemp production as a cash crop to replace income that has been steadily draining from the dairy industry in the state. Many dairy farmers reside in the more conservative Western Pennsylvania, so the possibility for expansion could be a key motivator for bipartisan support.
Senator Maria Collett, a Democrat representing Pennsylvania’s 12th District, believes the agricultural benefits of SB 350 could tip the scales.
“Recreational legalization will take some time,” Collett told Cannabis Wire. “But I am encouraged by the fact that an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians across the political spectrum—including, now, many farmers who are pushing our rural legislators—are in favor of legalization. So I’m confident that many of my Republican colleagues may come around.”
Some leading Pennsylvanian Republicans have labeled the legalization push as an opportunistic cash grab. The Senate Majority Leader, Jake Corman, told Cannabis Wire, “It was Winston Churchill who said: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ We have long maintained that state laws should be changed because they are good policy for the people of Pennsylvania—not because of their potential to generate money.”
Corman added that movement on this issue “should not be expected this fall.”
The Speaker of the House, Republican Bryan Cutler, also raised concerns about the logistical challenges that SB 350 would face. Representative Cutler’s office released a statement to Cannabis Wire suggesting that this push to legalize cannabis for adult use has been rushed. “Governor Wolf said for years he didn’t believe our state was ready for recreational marijuana. You have federal classification issues, and state decriminalization that need to be addressed first,” the statement read. “But suddenly, in the midst of all the other issues facing the state, Governor Wolf has changed course.”
However, to many Pennsylvania lawmakers, the fight over legalizing cannabis has been a long one, and one that is concerned with more than just generating revenue. Criminal justice reform has also been a focal point of the debate surrounding adult use legislation. Supporters of SB 350 argue that the bill serves as a first step in wider criminal justice reform, as Black and brown communities have suffered disproportionately from the enforcement of cannabis laws. Further, they argue, legalization could save the state government millions in expenses from locking up nonviolent drug offenders.
Senator Katie Muth, a Democratic state senator representing Pennsylvania’s 44th District, emphasized the importance of both justice reform and reparations in establishing adult use legalization. “While I generally support the concept of adult use cannabis,” Muth told Cannabis Wire, “I will only support legislation that includes the release and/or automatic expungement and reparations for individuals with nonviolent, marijuana-related criminal records.”
SB 350 currently contains provisions that would expunge cannabis-related convictions, providing that the “conduct giving rise to the offense did not cause bodily harm and did not cause property damage.”
While many Republican state lawmakers are convinced the bill won’t reach a vote this session, let alone pass, Leach and Street still believe the bill’s passage is a matter of “when” not “if.”
“Given the sheer size of our structural deficit in the wake of COVID, a number of legislators who used to only support legalization privately have gone public, with more to come. I think this is inevitable,” Leach told Cannabis Wire. “I just hope that we do it in a thoughtful way and with the sense of urgency that our situation calls for.”
The legalization of cannabis for adult use in New Jersey, Street believes, will help push legislation in the northeast. “We don’t want to get left behind by our neighboring state,” Street said.
Still, New Jersey’s approval of adult use cannabis may not phase the power brokers of the Pennsylvania Assembly. In an email, the office of Speaker of the House Cutler told Cannabis Wire that, “Just because neighboring states are making a move doesn’t mean our chambers will immediately follow suit. From our perspective there are far more pressing issues facing Pennsylvania right now.”