LEGAL FOR EVERYONE?
State lawmakers slow to consider decriminalization, recreational use
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 Feb. 4 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.”
Marijuana is smoked in Scranton on Jan. 31. Some state lawmakers say they are willing to discuss recreational use of the drug.