Pennsylvania Pushes Toward Cannabis Legalization

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A week after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf called for adult-use cannabis legalization, Wolf and Lt. Governor John Fetterman and Board of Pardons Secretary Brandon Flood outlined plans to expedite the pardons review process for certain cannabis-related convictions. 

“A person arrested for a minor non-violent marijuana charge should not face a lifetime of being unable to get a job, rent an apartment, or get into higher education,” Wolf said at a news conference on Wednesday. “In effect, what they’ve gotten for that minor conviction is a life sentence.” 

Pennsylvania seems to be fully engaged in the legal cannabis debate, with both gubernatorial support and some signs of voter support, but with strong opposition as well. Still, Flood said, “In my opinion, it is a foregone conclusion that Pennsylvania will legalize marijuana,” adding, “It’s a matter of when, not if.” 

The state is also debating how an adult-use system might work and how to shape its criminal justice provisions. Flood said it remains unclear whether any legalization bill will include provisions for expungement of past criminal charges for cannabis. Hence, he argues, the need for the expedited pardons review program. The program, Flood said, will also serve as a “stopgap measure” until the state decriminalizes adult-use cannabis. 

“There are no guarantees with this program, much like the name suggests,” Flood said. “We’re merely expediting the review and not promising outcomes, or favorable outcomes.” 

Under the expedited pardons review process, which will take effect immediately and does not require legislative approval, people convicted for possession of a small amount of cannabis for personal use or the intent to distribute, for distribution of a small amount of cannabis but not for sale, for any paraphernalia-related offenses, and for any felony convictions for cannabis possession will be eligible. A person will only be pardoned if the board deems them eligible after the review.

“It will be a Herculean effort, but I think it can be done,” Representative Carol Hill-Evans told Cannabis Wire, about the pardons review process

There is momentum in Pennsylvania for adult-use legalization. Following Wolf’s announcement last week, Attorney General Josh Shapiro also endorsed legalization of adult-use cannabis. “After months of internal research & discussions with fellow law enforcement, I am in support of efforts to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana use for Pennsylvanians over the age of 21,” he said in a tweet on Friday. 

According to a report released by Wolf and Fetterman last week, based on show-of-hands counts gathered during Fetterman’s statewide listening tour between February and May, some 65 to 70% of attendees favored adult-use legalization. Residents in support of legalization largely cited economic benefits such as job creation and tax revenues, as well as criminal justice reform, as their reasons. Those in opposition were worried about an uptick in cannabis-impaired driving, cannabis being a gateway drug, and the potential negative impact of cannabis on youth brain development.  

How cannabis sales would operate—through state-run or privately owned stores—is also up for discussion in Pennsylvania. Wolf said that’s a question for the state legislature.

But Representative David Delloso, who on Tuesday introduced a bill to legalize adult-use cannabis, favors state-run shops. He told Cannabis Wire, “It is a fantastic system for protecting our youth and maximizing the state’s ability to benefit from sales.” 

Delloso added that the state-run system will prevent corporate interests from scooping up the majority of the profits from the industry in the state. 

Others disagree. The state-run model would be problematic, Les Stark, the executive director of Keystone Cannabis Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based not-for-profit cannabis advocacy group, and Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies with the Marijuana Policy Project, both told Cannabis Wire. 

“I don’t think that Representative Delloso’s bill will be a workable program given the federal law right now,” O’Keefe said. “It would create obvious legal issues,” O’Keefe added, noting that the state-run system could force state employees to break federal law. 

“Keystone Cannabis Coalition and our members do not support the state-store model of legalization. I think that’s terrible,” said Stark. He took issue with the fact that the “same state that harassed us, rounded us up, threw us in prison, displayed our faces as trophies in the front page of newspapers and ruined the lives of so many—hundreds of thousands—citizens” would have exclusive rights to sell cannabis under the model. 

Some lawmakers and industry members are also concerned that the votes to pass legalization in Pennsylvania just aren’t there yet. “We only have two choices and that’s either to flip the legislature in favor of the Democrats or convince Republicans, and both of those are next to impossible,” Stark said. 

Others say that’s true now but may not be later. Once people see the economic boost that cannabis legalization can bring to the state, there will be a shift in the legislature’s mindset, Representative Austin Davis told Cannabis Wire. While it may not happen this year, it is a strong possibility in the next three to five years, he said. 

Earlier this year, Representative Jake Wheatley introduced a bill, H.B. 50, to amend the state’s medical cannabis act to include adult-use cannabis, while state senators Daylin Leach and Sharif Street announced their plans to introduce a social and criminal justice focused legalization bill.

“I’m encouraged by the fact that at least some of the ones who formerly were not in favor of it are at least doing research,” said Hill-Evans, who is a co-sponsor for Wheatley’s bill, about the legalization debate in the legislature. 

And Delloso said he thinks it will get “harder and harder for my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to say ‘no,’ when many of them represent rural districts that would benefit, when we talk about the grow side of things.” 


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