Will This Be the Year That Pennsylvania Legalizes Cannabis?
Lawmakers, government officials, and political candidates are rallying behind a new bill which would create a recreational pot market in the Keystone State.
Published on September 26, 2018

PA State Capitol after passage of medical marijuana bill; photo via Gov. Tom Wolf

Two years after Pennsylvania legalized medicinal cannabis, the state's medical pot industry is beginning to thrive, but state legislators and government officials are already looking to advance cannabis reform even further. This week, state Rep. Jake Wheatley proposed a bill that would build upon the state's medical marijuana program to allow any adult over 21 to possess and use recreational pot. The bill would allow adults to grow up to three mature and three immature plants, as well as legalize edibles, but would prohibit public smoking and driving under the influence.

The legislation would also address disparities in social justice resulting from the enforcement of cannabis laws. “My bill would immediately release people jailed for crimes associated with cannabis,” Wheatley said in a statement. “Those who have criminal histories related to cannabis would be expunged, and professional and driver’s licenses that were revoked or suspended due to cannabis-related crimes would be reinstated. For far too long, the criminal justice system has unfairly punished Pennsylvanians, especially minorities, who are caught with cannabis.”

Most other federal and state laws refer to cannabis as “marijuana” (or the even more antiquated “marihuana”), but the new bill would officially replace all references to “marijuana” in Pennsylvania laws and codes with “cannabis” instead, in order to “stop the demonization of Mexican immigrants and minorities, who some Southern and Midwest politicians in the 1930s claimed were bringing the plant into the country to use as poison.” The bill would also create a diversity initiative to encourage the participation of women and minorities within the state's cannabis industry.

Last month, Wheatley introduced a petition allowing Pennsylvanians to voice their support for legal weed. To date, this petition has collected over 8,000 signatures. Last year, a Franklin & Marshall poll found that 56% of registered voters supported legalizing weed in the Keystone State, up from 34% in 2006. The poll also found that 44% of Republicans, who have traditionally been less open to cannabis reform, are now supportive of legal weed. On Monday, legal cannabis advocates held a rally at the state’s Capitol Rotunda to voice their support for the bill.

One of those proponents is state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who released a report in July detailing how the state could collect $581 million a year in tax revenue from regulated adult-use sales. He reiterated those findings on Monday: "This is an issue that makes sense on so many levels, from reducing opioid addiction to criminal justice reform; creating jobs and bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in recurring revenue," DePasquale said. "We can use that revenue to invest in kids, invest in healthcare and save taxpayer money."

Despite this wave of support, the legislation is still facing an uphill battle in the state legislature, which currently has a large backlog of bills to consider before this year's legislative session ends in November. Gov. Tom Wolf, a supporter of medical marijuana, has also said he believes that Pennsylvania isn’t ready for fully legal pot. Midterm elections are just around the corner, however, and several candidates, including John Fetterman, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor who was also present at Monday’s rally, support Wheatley's bill. "I believe the greatest emphasis should be placed on fixing an unjust system that vastly, disproportionately punished people of color in communities of color," Fetterman said.

The impending legalization of recreational pot in neighboring New Jersey may also help tip the scales in favor of Pennsylvania’s reformers. The latest version of the Garden State's legal cannabis bill would establish a tax rate of 10% — tying Nevada for the lowest pot tax in the country — and Pennsylvania could find itself flooded with Jersey weed if lawmakers are unwilling to get their own adult-use market off the ground.

"Legalizing cannabis — which is already permitted for medical use here in the commonwealth — would yield tremendous benefits for our state," Wheatley said, according to the Philly Voice. "It’s time to end the 21st-century version of prohibition, stop squandering billions of dollars in revenue and balance our budget!"

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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