Despite Pennsylvania lawmakers and the governor proposing adult use cannabis legalization for years, Monday was the first time a committee took up legalization in the General Assembly.
The Senate Law & Justice Committee held a hearing on Monday that included lawmakers and members of law enforcement to testify on legalization. It was the first of three such hearings, and subsequent ones will focus on, for example, regulation and lessons learned from other states. The conversation largely focused on concerns, ranging from increasing crime and substance use, to changes to how members of law enforcement currently do their jobs. Another repeated topic of discussion was just how sophisticated the state’s unlicensed cannabis market has become.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have for years introduced legislation to legalize cannabis. Those bills, though, stalled before gaining any traction, due primarily to a lack of support from Republicans in the legislature, as Cannabis Wire has extensively reported.
Sen. Daniel Laughlin, who has co-sponsored adult use legislation in the past, said on Monday that the medical cannabis program without adult use cannabis was the “worst of both worlds.”
“By continuing to ignore this issue, we are supporting criminal enterprises, because for all intents and purposes, we de facto legalized adult use cannabis in Pennsylvania through the medical program,” Laughlin said.
Laughlin co-sponsored Senate Bill 473 with Sen. Sharif Street. The bill, which would legalize cannabis for adult use and expunge many cannabis convictions, remains in committee.
“As a Republican, it’s not quite as popular on our side of the aisle, for whatever reason,” Laughlin said. “We have already legalized adult use cannabis. You just need a $200 medical card. It’s like being a member of Sam’s Club.”
The latest legalization effort, which could signal a thawing of the GOP cold shoulder to cannabis, is spearheaded by Chair Mike Regan and Rep. Amen Brown.
Brown, who represents a district that includes most of west Philadelphia, said at the start of the hearing that legalization would help people in his community “make their lives better,” in part through access to benefits previously denied because of cannabis-related offenses.
Regan’s plan, which was shared with lawmakers in a memo last year, legalizes adult use cannabis while allocating revenue toward law enforcement, among other earmarks.
Warren County District Attorney Robert Greene testified about a memo that he released outlining that cops should only seek to charge drivers who “show outward signs of impairment,” not those who only have THC in their system.
“The majority of law enforcement I’ve spoken with agree on this premise that it should be legalized and it should be regulated,” Greene said. “They want to arrest hard drug users – the ones pushing fentanyl, the ones pushing heroin, and the ones pushing meth – not arresting grandma who’s smoking a joint on her porch, eating Cheetos and watching Cheech and Chong.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly called for legalization, last year noting in his budget plan that legalization was a priority.
“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 said in his budget announcement. “Now as our neighbors move toward legalizing recreational marijuana, we cannot afford to be left behind.” Since Wolf’s budget address last year, New York legalized cannabis for adults and New Jersey regulators took major steps to launch the state’s industry.
Wolf is scheduled to give his 2022 State of the State address, and release details of his budget, on Tuesday.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has also loudly called for legalization, both in Pennsylvania and on a national level. Fetterman, who is now running for a U.S. Senate seat, conducted perhaps the country’s most comprehensive listening tour of a state. In 2020, when discussing the results of the tour that included all 67 of Pennsylvania counties, he said that two-thirds of the residents who went to those public meetings said that they were in favor of legalization.