A group of Pennsylvania lawmakers spoke Friday about the path ahead for marijuana legalization in the state, emphasizing their interest in building a legal industry that’s inclusive, accommodating of existing medical patients and respectful of local communities’ needs.
During discussion at the 6th annual Cannabis Opportunities Conference—part of the Diasporic Alliance for Cannabis Opportunity’s (DACO) Black Cannabis Week—policymakers, most of whom are Black, emphasized the importance of building social equity into the legal market.
“This is going to be a multibillion-dollar industry,” said Sen. Sharif Street (D), who hosted the event. “We need to make sure that we’re inclusive… We need to make sure that folks can participate at every level of this industry.”
While medical marijuana is legal in Pennsylvania, lawmakers in the state are gearing up for a push to legalize cannabis more broadly. Street and a GOP senator partnered on legislation filed in July that would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older. The senator and others said it’s also possible that separate, standalone bills will be introduced to address specific issues.
Rep. Donna Bullock (D), one of two House lawmakers who circulated a cosponsorship memo about the policy proposal in January and a cosponsor of the legalization bill, said during the roundtable that including a robust equity program is the only way legislation will win her support.
“No bill will move with my name on it until I’m comfortable that we actually answer those questions,” said Bullock, who has previously spoken out against the dominance of large, multistate cannabis companies. “No bill will move with my name on it until I know for sure we’re not repeating the mistakes of equity in name only.”
“If you think you’re gonna get me with just some expungements, you got it wrong,” she added.
Under Street’s bill introduced in July, people who’ve been disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization and who meet certain income requirements would be eligible for social and economic equity business licenses. But Friday’s discussion made clear that some lawmakers would like to see those provisions made stronger.
Rep. Darisha Parker (D) said it’s essential that lawmakers “be intentional about the space that we’re about to be in.”
“I think sometimes some people get scared to say Black,” Parker said. “If we’re going to really do this for a legislative perspective, then all of us in the state need to make sure that we’re actually doing it, making sure that we’re actually supporting the individuals for this social equity bill that we’re going to be putting forward.”
“This is our reparations,” she added. “Let’s get busy.”
Some issues, such as access to capital or local control over approving cannabis businesses, have the potential to influence who controls the new industry, Parker noted, explaining that lawmakers are “still taking inventory” to see what’s worked in other states and what hasn’t.
Echoing that sentiment, Street said that in Pennsylvania, “we’re usually not the first to get anything done, but we’d like to be the first to get it right.”
Bullock said it’s more important to get legalization right than to get it done. “We’ve had…a hundred years of getting this wrong. I’m not in a rush to get it wrong again.”
Also present at Friday’s event were advocates and experts from other states who spoke about their experiences with legalization.
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), who served as lead sponsor of the state’s 2021 legalization law, said it’s crucial that equity programs be put into operation before legalization
“If you don’t get equity in first,” she said, “you’re not going to get it.”
Shekia Scott, cannabis business manager for the city of Boston, said that nearly seven years after Massachusetts legalized, “I feel like we’re still at a point where we’re chasing equity.”
“Even in Pennsylvania,” she said, “where things are not fully legalized for the adult-use market, you’re going to be chasing equity if you don’t start with it.”
Dasheeda Dawson, the founding director of Cannabis NYC, New York City’s municipal marijuana agency, said the “evolving language of cannabis equity” has been the biggest change she’s observed in the space over the past decade.
“We never really demanded the respect in language,” Dawson recalled. “We’d be on the legislative floor and we’d hear it constantly called ‘the black market.’”
“This term ‘legacy,’ or this term ‘traditional’ or ‘previously existing,’ was really meant to change the way our mindset is when we think about people who have participated in this market,” she said.
One panelist, Gary Chambers, who earlier this year ran to represent Louisiana in the U.S. Senate (and notably smoked a blunt in a campaign ad), remarked on the novelty of hearing other officials talk about the importance of social equity while his own state continues to criminalize cannabis.
“While it’s beautiful to listen to you all discuss social equity,” he said, “we don’t even have liberty in the South for a lot of our people.”
While Parker said at one point that legalization might take a while, there are nevertheless signs of support in the capital. Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) is on the side of enacting cannabis reform and in March proposed to legalize and tax adult-use marijuana as part of his 2023–2024 budget.
The prospects of enacting legalization also increased after Democrats took control of the House in last year’s election. Republicans maintained control of the Senate, but certain GOP members, such as Sens. Dan Laughlin (R) and Mike Regan (R), are backing the reform.
In February, Laughlin sent a letter to state law enforcement, urging officials to take steps to protect gun rights for cannabis consumers, particularly medical marijuana patients.
Street, who is sponsoring the newly filed legalization bill, took some advocates by surprise recently by joining other senators in urging a federal court not to authorize an overdose prevention site site in Philadelphia, while supporting a proposal to ban the harm reduction centers statewide.
Meanwhile, legislation filed in May by Rep. David Delloso (D) would legalize marijuana sales exclusively through state-run stores. The bill is similar to a measure Delloso filed last session.
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