PENNSYLVANIA — After years of ongoing debate, speculation, and listening tours, years which have seen two separate recreational marijuana legalization bills introduced into the state legislature by Democrats, Gov. Wolf has finally thrown his public support behind the cause.
For supporters of legalization, the move has been a long time coming. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has been a vocal supporter since long before he took office, and there’s been significant pressure from the progressive wing of the party at both the state and national level to make this a legislative priority. Wolf himself expressed support for the idea last year, but in more theoretical terms, and has always fallen short of making it a legislative priority.
In recent weeks, however, Wolf has both declared his support and urged the legislature to make a bill an issue of urgency this fall. He says that legalizing marijuana could help restart Pennsylvania’s economy following the coronavirus shutdowns. He wants revenue from sales to support local small businesses. And he wants to redress damages done to those who have suffered as a result of the criminalization of small amounts of pot.
Wolf’s statement is certainly big news from the perspective of the governor’s office — no Pennsylvania governor, and until recently, few governors period — has ever declared such specific public support for this type of legislation. But like with any legislation, Wolf’s ambitions here will be checked by the state house and the state senate.
Important questions of how the bill could be passed in a Republican-controlled legislature, and when it will even be brought up for discussion by lawmakers, remain persistent and unanswered.
The opposition today
While it’s hard to find a Pennsylvania Democrat outspoken in any meaningful way against legalizing recreational marijuana, many Republicans have not changed their tune for years. Opponents of marijuana — even medical marijuana — remain numerous in the state legislature. They cite public health concerns, and stand firm on one side of a philosophical policy debate which has been raging in America for decades: how effective is the criminalization of drug use, and is the public more or less safe if pot is decriminalized?
But that’s not the stance taken by GOP leadership, and those aren’t the questions they’re asking. At least not yet. Top state Republicans were careful not to express opposition to the abstract idea of legalizing marijuana, and struck a more neutral tone when weighing policy arguments and specific aspects of the proposed move.
Rather, they’re looking at the short term, and the environment into which Gov. Wolf has introduced this ambitious new plan. For Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-34), the timing is conspicuous.
“It was Winston Churchill who said: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ We have long maintained that state laws should be changed because they are good policy for the people of Pennsylvania – not because of their potential to generate money,” Corman said.
Additionally, there are questions of how swiftly this policy could be implemented and bring about results. Gov. Wolf’s office has framed the policy shift (or, at least, sharp policy clarification) as something which could help with pandemic recovery and cause an economic boon. But even they recognize that even in the best case scenario, this plan will take time to unroll, and that the goal is “helping the state’s economy recover in the future.”
For state Republicans, there are plenty of other things that the Wolf administration should be focusing on in the here and now.
“We find the timing disappointing,” Mike Straub, communications director for Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler, told Patch. “Gov. Wolf and Lt. Gov. Fetterman held a press conference on this subject on the very same day in person school for thousands of teachers and students resumed across Pennsylvania. Millions of Pennsylvanians are out of work, small businesses are closing and the state’s unemployment compensation system is completely overwhelmed.”
The proposal itself
There are currently two recreational pot bills that have been introduced in the state legislature. Both bills are similar, and both call for the same essential thing as Gov. Wolf’s more generalized proposal: state regulation, redirecting revenue to community projects, and addressing criminal justice reform.
The most recent was House Bill 2050 and Senate Bill 350, sponsored by Democratic State Sens. Sharif Street (D-3) and Daylin Leach (D-17), which hit the floor in February just before the outbreak of the pandemic. That bill laid out a roadmap for taxing growers and redirecting funds to a variety of social programs. It also called for criminal justice through something called the Cannabis Clean Slate Initiative, which expunged all marijuana-related offenses from the records of non-violent drug offenders.
Wolf’s proposal said basically that in different words, calling for “criminal justice reform policies that restore justice for individuals convicted of marijuana-related offenses.” Wolf also specified that pot revenue would be used for funding grants to small businesses, with half of that earmarked for historically disadvantaged businesses.
Officials estimate that it would — eventually — raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the state, as well as create thousands of jobs.
“In 2019, nearly 22,000 people in PA were arrested for having a small amount of marijuana,” Fetterman said in a statement supporting Wolf. “We can better devote the time and resources we spend prosecuting these Pennsylvanians for doing something that most of us think shouldn’t even be illegal.”
House Bill 2050 was referred to the Health Committee on March 4, and has not been addressed since.
The bill would allow anyone 21 and over to consume cannabis, while establishing cannabis lounges and freeing those imprisoned on certain cannabis-related charges.
Additionally, the bill would permit each household to grow up to six marijuana plants at once. It could not be smoked in public, but businesses could allow it on their premises.
Supporters of Wolf’s announcement noted these existing bills last week.
“With two robust legalization bills already written, lawmakers could act tomorrow,” Jeff Riedy, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Gov. Wolf’s office told Patch that they are working with the legislature on language for a bill. It’s unclear if this will be a new bill or an amended version of an existing bill.
Practicality of the idea
Ten states around the nation have now legalized marijuana use, and 33, including Pennsylvania have legalized it for medicinal purposes. It’s not yet clear how much support the bill has in the conservative Pennsylvania state legislature, though Leach and Sharif point to a 2017 poll that shows 60 percent of residents would support ending marijuana prohibition.
“The decriminalization and legalization of adult-use cannabis are what the people of Pennsylvania want,” Gov. Wolf said. “I urge the General Assembly to listen to them.”
The first step would be for the Republican-controlled legislature to allow a bill to be brought to the table for discussion. And in the short term at least, the GOP has no plans to make that a priority.
“Like with any issue, a bill would need to work its way through the Senate Committee process to be vetted,” Sen. Corman told Patch in a statement. “Movement on this issue should not be expected his fall.”
However, he did not close the door on future cooperation.
“We do appreciate though the Governor recognizing the need for the General Assembly to play a role in this,” he added. “We look forward to receiving specifics about his broad concepts including who would regulate this new industry, where it would be sold, strategies for enforcement and plans to minimize the impacts on the medical marijuana industry.”
The Pennsylvania general assembly has 109 Republicans to 93 Democrats, while the state senate has 28 Republicans, 21 Democrats, and one independent. Many of these seats are up for election this fall, though both the house and the senate have been Republican-controlled for a decade now, and Democrats have only had four years of control of the house in the last 25 years.