For years, Democrats in Pennsylvania’s legislature have introduced bills to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. But without any Republican support, those bills were dead on arrival.
On Wednesday, the landscape shifted. State Sen. Dan Laughlin, a Republican from Erie, proposed new legalization legislation — but with a conservative stamp.
Laughlin’s measure would set up a cannabis industry that encourages small businesses and includes language to render moot a federal rule that supposedly bars marijuana users from buying guns.
It marked the first time that any state Republican legislator has endorsed a plan to end the prohibition on cannabis.
“Pennsylvania has virtually already legalized marijuana through the medical program,” Laughlin said Wednesday. “All you have to say is that you have a bad back and you’re in. This bill simply recognizes reality.”
Fourteen states allow adults to consume cannabis. At least 35 states permit it for medical use.
Laughlin’s proposal comes during the same week that New Jersey legalized cannabis for all adults, although sales there are not expected to start immediately. The Virginia legislature made weed legal earlier this month and expects retail sales to begin in 2024. New York lawmakers are considering several legalization bills this year.
“It’s just following the will of the people,” Laughlin said. “It’s not designed specifically to raise revenue.”
Laughlin self-identifies as a libertarian and moderate. He was one of 24 state senators — out of an upper-house GOP delegation of 27 — who signed a brief submitted in December to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging late-arriving mail-in votes that were cast in Pennsylvania. The high court on Monday refused to hear the case.
He joined up with a Philadelphia Democrat, State Sen. Sharif Street, to sponsor the proposal. It is technically an amendment to the law that created the Pennsylvania medical marijuana program.
It would provide loans and grants — generated by a 6% sales tax and an additional 10% levy — to fund social equity programs that would assist Pennsylvanians of all backgrounds if they want to sell or grow cannabis.
It’s not the first legalization effort that Street has introduced in Harrisburg. In 2019, he coauthored a previous bill, which marijuana and hemp advocates had considered the “gold standard” for such legislation. But without Republican support, it died without a hearing.
Street said the new language would allow residents 21 years and older to possess 30 grams of cannabis flower (about an ounce of smokable marijuana). It would also release anyone currently serving time for nonviolent marijuana offenses. Also, people convicted of low-level cannabis crimes would have those expunged from their records.
“Sensible bipartisan efforts are necessary to find new revenue to rebuild our communities, fund education, and support small businesses,” Street said in a statement. “Communities across Philadelphia and Pennsylvania will benefit. The time to end the prohibition of cannabis in Pennsylvania has come. I’m proud to be able to work across the aisle with Sen. Laughlin to get it done.”
The proposal would allow medical marijuana patients to grow up to five cannabis plants at home.
Federal law continues to view marijuana as an illegal substance. Anyone who uses marijuana is technically barred under U.S. law from owning a firearm.
Gun buyers nationwide are required to check off a box when they purchase a firearm attesting that they don’t use cannabis. The Laughlin-Street legislation states that anyone in lawful possession of marijuana “shall not be prohibited or otherwise restricted from lawful firearm ownership.” As a practical matter, the federal prohibition appears to be largely unenforced and has played a minor role in the legalization debate.
Laughlin is chair of the Senate Game and Fisheries Committee.
The new recreational market would be built on top of the existing medical marijuana industry. Current growers and dispensaries would be able to “flip the switch” and participate in the expanded market.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf backs legalizing recreational marijuana, in part on the grounds that it would produce badly needed revenue for the state.
On Tuesday, Wolf posted a message on Facebook that said, “Tell your state legislator to get a bill legalizing adult use of marijuana to my desk. I’d be more than happy to sign it into law.”
Key Republicans in the legislature — whose party controls both houses — could not be reached. State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, the House majority leader, and Senate President Jake Corman did not return calls seeking comment.
In 2018, Corman blasted any move to legalize pot as “reckless and irresponsible,” but he has since tempered his rhetoric, though he has yet to endorse legalization. Last year, a spokesperson for Benninghoff said that “we shouldn’t be legalizing another drug” when the state faced a crisis with opioids.
Laughlin said he expects that several Republicans will eventually cosponsor it. Key state Democrats lauded Laughlin for taking a risk.
“I think it’s outstanding,” said Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. “The logjam for legalization was there was never a Republican sponsor. Now we have one. This is a bipartisan issue. This is what Pennsylvania needs.”
Fetterman, a well-known legalization advocate, pointed out that medical marijuana in Pennsylvania was held up until a Republican cosponsored a bill with then-Democratic State Sen. Daylin Leach of Montgomery County.
“Just having one Republican who can plant the flag and acknowledge the truth changes everything,” Fetterman said. “The majority of Pennsylvanians want this, too. I tip my hat to Sen. Laughlin for his courage.”
The bill would create a new state agency that would regulate both a new cannabis industry and current medical marijuana businesses.
“This is the best chance we’ve had yet,” said William Roark, a lawyer who cochairs the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Medical Marijuana and Hemp Law Committee.
“The hope is that this creates a dialogue and gives us something to talk about rather than, ‘Is recreational marijuana a good idea?’
“Now we have policy to debate. Now we have chips to trade with different stakeholders,” Roark said. “Now the hope is this could provide the foundation for what will ultimately become the law.”