Dis­cus­sion sur­rounds le­gal­iz­ing drug for recre­ational use

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - FRONT PAGE - BY JON O’CON­NELL STAFF WRITER

The ink from Gov. Tom Wolf ’s pen was still dry­ing on the land­mark law that al­lows cannabis for med­i­cal use, but ac­tivists were al­ready call­ing for more.

They wanted it le­gal for ev­ery­one.

The path to a recre­ational pol­icy, of­ten called adult-use pol­icy, got a boost last week when state Rep. Jake Wheat­ley, D-19, Al­legheny County, in­tro­duced a bill that sets mar­ket­ing stan­dards and re­stric­tions sim­i­lar to how Penn­syl­va­nia reg­u­lates al­co­hol.

Even as he pitched the bill to the press dur­ing a Har­ris­burg news con­fer­ence, which was broad­cast on the state House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives web­site, he sug­gested the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal ap­petite for le­gal­iza­tion prob­a­bly is not enough to push through his pro­posed House Bill 50. How­ever, he sounded sure that it is com­ing.

“There’s a good 50/50 chance that, at some point — maybe it won’t be this year, maybe it’s next year — at some point, this con­ver­sa­tion around le­gal­iz­ing cannabis is go­ing to be very real,” he said. “I’d rather do it sooner rather than later.”

Slowly, more law­mak­ers are get­ting on board.

Wolf has not ex­actly thrown his weight be­hind it, but he called for se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion.

Newly seated Lt. Gov. John Fet­ter­man, who made tak­ing Penn­syl­va­nia “full-on Colorado” a key plank in his cam­paign plat­form, is now on a 67-county lis­ten­ing tour, stop­ping at each county to hear cit­i­zens’ opin­ions on le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana.

Last year, be­fore he was elected, Fet­ter­man was a key­note speaker at the Penn­syl­va­nia Cannabis Fes­ti­val in Scran­ton’s Nay Aug Park.

Nine cities, in­clud­ing Philadel­phia, Pitts­burgh and Erie, de­crim­i­nal­ized small amounts of weed, mean­ing no jail time and no crim­i­nal charges.

In­stead, people caught with it typ­i­cally get a sum­mary of­fense, akin to a park­ing ticket.

That is a step many ad­vo­cates say should come first, be­fore full le­gal­iza­tion where the law would pro­vide a frame­work for how people can use it and com­pa­nies can sell it.

How­ever, for one long­time ac­tivist, it is not nec­es­sar­ily the right step, just the one that ev­ery­one seems to take first.

“There hasn’t been a state out there that hasn’t (de­crim­i­nal­ized) first be­fore they le­gal­ized,” said Jeff Zick, founder of the Penn­syl­va­nia Cannabis Fes­ti­val. “We don’t have to waste our po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal. ... I think if we (de­crim­i­nal­ize) first, it’s go­ing to put us back far­ther in the fight.”

Like many oth­ers, he wants to see home grow­ing le­gal­ized first, if for no one else than the pa­tients who al­ready use cannabis un­der the state’s Med­i­cal Mar­i­juana Pro­gram.

Since in­sur­ance com­pa­nies do not cover cannabis, pa­tients are lim­ited in buy­ing only what they can af­ford out of pocket, and grow­ing cannabis at home for per­sonal use would dra­mat­i­cally im­prove ac­cess, he says.

Any home-grow leg­is­la­tion skips over one of the big­gest in­cen­tives law­mak­ers have to pass­ing an adult-use pro­gram: more rev­enue.

Penn­syl­va­nia Au­di­tor Gen­eral Eu­gene DePasquale es­ti­mates a reg­u­lated recre­ational mar­i­juana pro­gram could add a half-bil­lion dol­lars to state cof­fers.

Just like casi­nos and med­i­cal cannabis, the propo­si­tion of ad­di­tional rev­enue on that scale grabs at­ten­tion.

A 2017 Franklin & Mar­shall poll found six in 10 vot­ers fa­vor full cannabis le­gal­iza­tion, a dra­matic in­crease from 11 years ear­lier when only two in 10 vot­ers fa­vored it.

Many law­mak­ers say Penn­syl­va­nia first needs to work out the kinks in its Med­i­cal Mar­i­juana Pro­gram be­fore clear­ing the drug for a recre­ational pro­gram.

As neigh­bor­ing states ap­pear to be inch­ing to­ward recre­ational, one of the big­gest ad­vo­cates who pushed through the med­i­cal cannabis pro­gram ac­knowl­edges that Penn­syl­va­nia’s time will even­tu­ally come. He just does not think the com­mon­wealth is ready for it.

“We’ve moved far­ther and faster than any other state that’s done this,” said Sen. Mike Folmer, R-48, Le­banon County. “That’s be­cause I think we were so fo­cused on cannabis as medicine, and that’s the way I’d like to keep it for now.”

Nine Penn­syl­va­nia cities have de­crim­i­nal­ized small amounts of mar­i­juana, and there is pro­posed leg­is­la­tion sup­port­ing a recre­ational pol­icy for adult-only use.


Lt. Gov. John Fet­ter­man of Penn­syl­va­nia speaks at a news con­fer­ence in the gover­nor’s Capi­tol re­cep­tion room on Jan. 24 in Har­ris­burg. Fet­ter­man, with back­ing from Gov. Tom Wolf, an­nounced that he’ll open a “con­ver­sa­tion” about le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana in Penn­syl­va­nia by sched­ul­ing a series of town hall-style ses­sions on it.

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