Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman have pushed for cannabis legalization for years, only to face pushback from the legislature.
Now, for the first time, Wolf has included legalization as part of his budget plan. Sort of. In a budget address on Wednesday that focused on a bipartisan approach to healthcare, jobs, education, and family support, Wolf said that cannabis legalization would work to “reform our criminal justice system.”
The address follows Wolf’s announcement of his 2021 priorities last week, which also included adult use legalization. The state’s medical cannabis program went live more than two years ago.
“Pennsylvania has built a successful medical marijuana program through bipartisan work. Now it’s time to take the next step and legalize recreational marijuana in the commonwealth with an emphasis on helping businesses and restorative justice,” Wolf noted in his budget announcement. “Now as our neighbors move toward legalizing recreational marijuana, we cannot afford to be left behind.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo in neighboring New York has, for the third time in as many years, proposed legalization through the budget this year, and New Jersey voters passed a legalization initiative in November.
During his budget address on Wednesday, Wolf said that his budget was packed with a “number of things” that have bipartisan support, “building on progress and continuing to reform our criminal justice system, improving the professional licensing process to knock down barriers to entry in high demand professions, legalizing recreational marijuana.”
“There is no reason why we can’t work together, Democrats and Republicans, to pass these initiatives,” Wolf said.
However, unlike Cuomo’s budget, which includes full adult use legislation, Wolf’s budget documents for 2021-22, released on Wednesday, note only that Wolf “intends to pursue the legalization of adult-use cannabis.” (Cannabis Wire contacted Wolf’s office to learn more, and did not get a response by publication.)
Wolf’s budget suggests that cannabis legalization “could” be an economic driver for Pennsylvanians, including those who bore the brunt of enforcement of cannabis laws.
“The revenue generated from legalization could be used to support historically disadvantaged small businesses through grant funding, and provide them the assistance they need to build back from the economic crisis and strengthen our economy. Additionally, a portion of the revenue could support restorative justice programs to help the individuals and communities that have been adversely harmed by the criminalization of marijuana,” the plan reads. “Combined, these initiatives will serve as a step forward in reversing the decades of injustices, economic harm and trauma caused by marijuana criminalization, particularly on minority communities.”
In September, Wolf held a news conference that called on lawmakers to seriously consider legalization.
“In the past year, the legislature has failed to find time to debate and pass adult use cannabis, even though this is an issue that affects thousands of Pennsylvanians through our criminal justice system right now. And it can provide millions of dollars in much needed revenue at a time when we desperately need that revenue,” Wolf said.
Wolf added that he is “renewing that call because I think now more than ever, especially right in the middle of this pandemic, we have a desperate need for the economic boost that the legalization of cannabis could provide.”
Pennsylvania has been on a path to legalize since 2019, when Fetterman spearheaded a statewide listening tour.
“I pitched this to our red counties, our Republican-led counties. Our farmers need a cash crop. Now, our small counties need an economic boost and they need employability,” Fetterman told Cannabis Wire last year.
A report that followed Fetterman’s listening tour highlighted that, based on show-of-hand counts, 65 to 70% of attendees favored adult-use legalization. Residents who voiced their support cited their desire to bolster the economy through jobs and tax revenue, while others sought criminal justice reform.
Cannabis Wire asked Fetterman if a legalization effort had a clear shot of passage in the legislature last fall, given the potential for a lukewarm response from the General Assembly.
“Of course, there’s going to be hurdles. But I think the governor affirming the importance in how critical marijuana legalization is to Pennsylvania’s future is, it can’t be understated,” Fetterman said. “I mean, it’s never a glide path, no matter what the makeup of the legislature is,” Fetterman continued, adding that the Republican leadership in the General Assembly was going to be a “huge factor… But the bottom line is simply that any legislation that passes has to have a bipartisan nature.”
Last year, Senators Sharif Street and Daylin Leach co-sponsored SB 350, an adult use cannabis legalization bill, but it didn’t gain traction.
“These times call for creative policy,” Street told Cannabis Wire. “And we aren’t afraid to use that creativity that needs to be found during a pandemic.”
Senator Maria Collett, a Democrat representing Pennsylvania’s 12th District, believes the agricultural benefits of cannabis legalization 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.”
Still, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman indicated to Cannabis Wire that cannabis legalization still faces a tough climb in Pennsylvania.
“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.”
Regardless of how it’s passed, cannabis legalization is just a matter of time, Fetterman said.
“It’s inevitable. I mean, it’s like death and taxes and legal marijuana. It’s coming,” Fetterman said, adding that conversations with lawmakers, in an effort to shore up support, “are going to continue and are necessary.”