With Ohio becoming the latest state to legalize marijuana, there’s a renewed sense of urgency to follow suit in neighboring Pennsylvania, with the governor’s office calling it “another reminder” of the need to enact reform.
Pennsylvania is now more solidly blanketed by states with legalization on the books. Five out of six bordering states—Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Ohio—have all done away with prohibition, leaving residents with plentiful and relatively accessible options to buy out-of-state cannabis products.
Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) campaigned on legalization, and there have been bipartisan efforts to advance the issue—including a recent convening of a House subcommittee for informational meetings on marijuana policy that are meant to guide future legislation. But the reform has long stalled in the Keystone State, where the legislature is currently divided with Democrats controlling the House and a GOP majority in the Senate.
Ohio’s vote to legalize marijuana at the ballot on Tuesday could help grease the wheels, though. Both the governor’s office and a key senator who’s championed legalization say it’s time to act.
Manuel Bonder, a spokesperson for the governor, told PennLive that Ohio is “another reminder this is something we should get done in Pennsylvania.” He said the governor considers legalization unfinished business, and he wants to see legislation sent to his desk that takes into account decriminalization, economic opportunities, law enforcement perspectives and public safety.
Sen. Sharif Street (D), who is sponsoring a legalization bill this session with Sen. Dan Laughlin (R), said he’s “cautiously optimistic Pennsylvania will get it done in 2024.”
“Now really almost every part of Pennsylvania is somewhat near a place where cannabis, recreational adult-use is already legal,” he said. “So I think that will be persuasive because it means that we’re not really increasing accessibility. We are doing it to create greater opportunity for the potential revenue and for Pennsylvania businesses to engage in.”
Laughlin, for his part, said that he knows there’s private support for legalization within his caucus, but “they’re still afraid to support it because they think it’s going to harm them politically.” But he added, “I don’t know how much longer Pennsylvania can continue to ignore what I consider to be the obvious.”
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With a new, narrow Democratic majority in the House this session and support from the governor—who proposed to legalize and tax adult-use marijuana as part of his 2023-2024 budget request—the prospects of legalization in Pennsylvania did increase this session. But there’s still an open question about how the GOP-controlled Senate might approach reform if the opposite chamber delivered it a bill.
The House Health Subcommittee on Health Care held its first informational meeting last week to begin to chart a path forward, but members are currently considering a variety of options including the possibility of creating a state-run regulatory model.
The full Health Committee is chaired by Rep. Dan Frankel (D), who has previously sponsored cannabis legalization legislation and circulated a cosponsorship memo earlier this year previewing plans to file another reform bill this session.
“As we’re entering this conversation and developing a proposal for adult use, I think [Ohio’s vote to legalize] adds to the momentum here in Pennsylvania to get something done,” Frankel told PennLive. “So we might as well join the parade because consumers in Pennsylvania are going to access it anyway.”
Rep. Kathy Rapp (R), the ranking GOP member of the Health Committee, is among those who remain opposed to advancing legalization, and she told PennLive that Ohio’s vote to end prohibition “does not sway me.”
“This is not good for the people of Pennsylvania regardless of the revenue because there’s always the downside of rehabbing mental health issues especially for our youth regarding marijuana,” she said. “We cannot ensure the safety of our youth, our communities, against the crimes of the marijuana industry. We don’t have enough law enforcement.”
Last year, the Senate Law and Justice Committee held a series of hearings on marijuana legalization that were meant to inform legislation that the panel’s Republican chairman, Sen. Mike Regan (R), was drafting.
“I think states are getting tired of financing “Evil, Incorporated”, meaning the drug cartels,” he said this week. “They are realizing that billions of potential revenue dollars are leaving their states. Meanwhile, their residents are being exposed to an unsafe, potentially laced or toxic, unregulated product.”
In addition to the more conventional legalization proposal that’s being sponsored by bipartisan senators this session, House lawmakers have also filed separate bills to legalize marijuana sales through state-run stores and to provide permits for farmers and small agriculture businesses to cultivate cannabis once adult-use sales are allowed.
Also, last month, the House approved a large-scale tax reform bill that contains language to provide state-level relief to medical marijuana businesses as they continue to struggle under federal financial barriers. The reform drew the ire of Republican members—who normally champion tax cuts—as a Democratic giveaway to the cannabis industry.
Another measure to allow all licensed medical marijuana grower-processors in the state to sell their cannabis products directly to patients cleared the Senate in September, and it advanced through the House Health Committee on Monday.
Former Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who came around to support legalization near the end of his term, also signed large-scale legislation last year that included provisions to protect banks and insurers in the state that work with licensed medical marijuana businesses.
Black lawmakers separately discussed the need to ensure equity considerations are at the center of any marijuana legalization plan at a conference last month.
Meanwhile, Laughlin, who is sponsoring legalization legislation this session, also sent a letter to state law enforcement in February, urging officials to take steps to protect gun rights for cannabis consumers, particularly medical marijuana patients, in light of a federal court’s recent ruling on the issue.
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