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Republican-backed push to legalize weed in Pennsylvania gets underway with hearing

The push to legalize recreational marijuana for adults in Pennsylvania follows legalization moves in neighboring New Jersey and New York.

The Pennsylvania Senate on Monday held the first in what is expected to be a series of hearings aimed at gathering information needed for a bill that would legalize adult-use recreational marijuana in the state.
The Pennsylvania Senate on Monday held the first in what is expected to be a series of hearings aimed at gathering information needed for a bill that would legalize adult-use recreational marijuana in the state.Read moreDreamstime / MCT

A Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate committee on Monday held what was billed as the first of a series of hearings on the potential legalization of recreational marijuana use for adults.

During the two-hour Law and Justice Committee hearing in Harrisburg, lawmakers and panelists wrestled with questions about whether legalization would stamp out the black market, make marijuana safer from deadly contaminants, or do anything to prevent users from dipping joints in embalming fluid to get an extra high.

Among the main concerns was also how police will enforce laws against driving under the influence.

Some panelists suggested that the drug is already everywhere and effectively legal.

“People that want to smoke marijuana now or eat edibles are doing it now,” said Warren County District Attorney Robert Greene. As to fears of an increase in intoxicated drivers if weed were legalized for recreational use, he said, “people who want to drive high are driving high now.”

Chairing the hearing was Republican State Sen. Mike Regan, a former law enforcement officer who represents parts of Cumberland and York Counties. Regan, a supporter of legalization, announced in October that he was working with Democratic State Rep. Amen Brown, who represents part of West Philadelphia, on a marijuana legalization bill.

Regan, who was an architect of Pennsylvania’s law legalizing marijuana for medical use, repeatedly made the point during Monday’s hearing that suppliers to the illegal market are not paying taxes.

“We must also make sure that Pennsylvanians receive their fair share from the sale of adult-use marijuana, not the cartels and gangs whose profits are comparable to Fortune 500 companies,” Regan said Friday in a media advisory announcing the hearing.

Regan plans additional hearings, including one that would help lawmakers examine how other states have done “right and wrong,” he said Monday.

Although the bill remains something of a long shot — house GOP leaders still oppose legalization, a GOP Caucus spokesperson said Monday — the prospect of formal hearings led by a House Republican leader could indicate that change is in the wind.

Already, 18 states, including New Jersey and New York, and the District of Columbia have fully legalized cannabis, though those two neighboring states have not started recreational sales yet.

Feb. 22 will be the one-year anniversary of New Jersey’s cannabis legalization, which gave regulators one year to start recreational sales. Medical marijuana retailers say they are ready to sell to the general public, but regulators haven’t given them the green light.

A year ago, State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie) became the first Senate Republican to support cannabis legalization. His bill, an effort with State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia), is now in Regan’s committee. The hearings planned by Regan will inform the movement of that bill, a spokesperson for Street said.

Street participated in Monday’s hearing even though he is not a member of that committee.

Other speakers included two other lawmakers from Philadelphia, the York County district attorney, a veteran law enforcement officer from Dauphin County, and four former law enforcement officers who now manage security for medical marijuana companies with sites in Pennsylvania.

» READ MORE: As recreational use of marijuana arrives across the region, jobs in weed are growing

Brown and Councilmember Curtis Jones were the two lawmakers from Philadelphia to testify.

Jones told the senators that legalization might be be the lesser of two evils, given the problems caused in his district by the illegal drug trade. But he also wants some local control.

“I’d go with legalization if Philadelphia is allowed to determine where cannabis is sold,” he said.