Pennsylvania lawmakers will try again on cannabis legalization. But this time, the bill’s main backers are bipartisan.
Democratic Senator Sharif Street and Republican Senator Dan Laughlin held a news conference on Wednesday to announce their bill to bring adult use cannabis in Pennsylvania. In the past, Street pushed for legalization alongside Democratic Senator Daylin Leach, who left office in 2020.
Street told Cannabis Wire that he’s been having one-on-one calls with Republican lawmakers, to try to build support for the legislation.
“I believe that there is significant Republican support and we just have to continue to do the work,” Street added.
The sponsors looked closely at what other states got right and wrong, and took the parts that made the most sense for their constituents, but the bill is a “uniquely Pennsylvania solution,” Street told Cannabis Wire. These provisions include ensuring a market for small farmers, as well as home grow.
The legislation, which includes equity licenses and expungement, would create a “more equitable field,” Street said.
During the the news conference earlier in the day, Street said, “As a Black man living in North Philadelphia, I’ve observed for years how cannabis laws have been disproportionately enforced. And there’s been a disparate impact on people of color.”
Laughlin pointed out that the Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office testified before the legislature last week that adult use cannabis legalization could raise serious revenue in the state, between an estimated $400 million and $1 billion.
“I pledged to never raise taxes when I ran for this seat, and I refuse to see a single tax raised on Pennsylvanians when an opportunity for new revenue to balance our state budget is right in front of us,” Laughlin said.
One reporter asked about Republican opposition to cannabis legalization, to which Laughlin responded by calling it “kind of the elephant in the room.”
“I believe in solving problems and adult use cannabis is currently a problem in Pennsylvania. It’s run by the black market. People are being arrested for it, for something that is arguably no more harmful than liquor,” Laughlin said. “I have broad shoulders. I’m not afraid to run a bill that might not fit our party stereotype.”
Laughlin told a story about a conversation he had with one of his children, describing this talk as the “final straw” when it came to his support for regulating cannabis sales.
“He told me that you can have a bag of weed delivered to the house in under an hour, and that’s better service than Amazon. And I realized that anyone in Pennsylvania that wants to smoke marijuana is probably already doing so. We might as well take this and regulate it. I think it’s the most responsible thing that we can do,” Laughlin said.
Street talked about the timing of the legalization bill, and “why now,” emphasizing the need to quash the illicit market.
“I think basic market principles will put out the black market. It’ll be safer, it’ll be cheaper, and it’ll be more accessible for people to get legal cannabis once we move forward with this recreational use bill,” Street said.
Last year, Wolf suggested that cannabis legalization could help mend a pandemic-torn state economy. Coughlin agrees. When asked on Wednesday whether there could be perceptions of ill timing for legalization, given the ongoing pandemic, he said, “It’s just always the right time to do the right thing.”
This year, for the first time, Wolf included legalization as part of his budget plan. Sort of. In an early February budget address 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.”
“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.”
During Wolf’s address, the governor noted 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.
But, unlike Cuomo’s budget, which includes full adult use legislation, Wolf’s budget documents for 2021-22 only indicated that Wolf “intends to pursue the legalization of adult-use cannabis.”
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman led a statewide listening tour focused on legalization between February and May 2019. A subsequent report 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.
Pennsylvania, like many states in the northeast, is bordered either by states with legal adult use cannabis, like New Jersey, or states strongly considering legalization, like New York.
“It’s inevitable. I mean, it’s like death and taxes and legal marijuana. It’s coming,” Fetterman told Cannabis Wire last year, adding that conversations with lawmakers, in an effort to shore up support, “are going to continue and are necessary.”
This story has been updated with comments from Senator Sharif Street.