The latest in a series of bills to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania for adult recreational use was introduced Monday in the Assembly.
The bill, H.R. 50, which would amend current law, differs radically from previous efforts to legalize marijuana. Introduced by Rep Jake Wheatley (D., Allegheny), it addresses several issues long fought for by advocates.
This is the first bill to be introduced after Gov. Tom Wolf said in mid-December that it was time for Pennsylvania to seriously consider legalizing recreational use. Such bills, typically sponsored by Democrats, face the uphill task of convincing Republican lawmakers, who have typically been opposed.
On adoption of the law, anyone who had been arrested and convicted of a minor cannabis offense would have those crimes expunged from their record. And any Pennsylvanian over age 21 would be allowed to cultivate up to six plants at home, as long as only three were flowering at any time.
Taxes collected from the sale of recreational cannabis would be directed to a handful of social programs. The first $5 million would go to state programs aimed at keeping people out of prison, workforce development, and mentoring services in communities that saw a high number of cannabis-related arrests during the War on Drugs.
Additional revenue would go to student-debt forgiveness, affordable housing, and after-school programs.
“We passed a law in 2016 that allowed medical cannabis in Pennsylvania,” Wheatley said. “That law was the right step. The first step. But we need to do more.”
The bill would allow for up to 300 recreational cannabis retail locations. Those shops would operate independently of the Pennsylvania State Store system but be like those used to sell alcohol. There are more than 600 State Stores across the commonwealth and nearly 1,000 commercial outlets now sell takeout beer and wine.
H.R. 50 has 25 cosponsors, all Democrats. Philadelphia-area lawmakers who have signed on include MaryLouise Isaacson (Phila.), Rosita C. Youngblood (Phila.), Jared G. Solomon (Phila.), Kevin J. Boyle (Phila.-Montgomery), Donna Bullock (Phila.), Mary Jo Daley (Montgomery), Brian Sims (Phila.), Danilo Burgos (Phila.), Stephen Kinsey (Phila.), Malcolm Kenyatta (Phila.), Joanna E. McClinton (Phila.-Delaware), Christopher M. Rabb (Phila.), Jordan A. Harris (Phila.), Brian Kirkland (Delaware), Dan K. Williams (Chester), Joe Ciresi (Montgomery), and Tim Briggs (Montgomery).
“Many say they support it, and that it makes sense,” Wheatley said. “We have voter support. Almost 60 percent of Pennsylvanians believe this is the time to legalize cannabis. What could help us is the 67-county tour Lt. Gov. Fetterman is embarking on. We encourage people to show up and express their support.”
Fetterman’s first stops on his “Recreational Marijuana Legalization Listening Tour” are slated for Dauphin and Perry Counties. He will appear Monday, Feb. 11, at the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg, and Tuesday, Feb. 12, at the Newport Public Library. Additional dates will be released on Friday.
Cannabis advocate Patrick Nightingale, a Pittsburgh lawyer, believes the chances of getting Republican support for the bill are good “if we take the time to make the case and help them understand why this would be a good decision.”
“We need to get out of our bubble a little bit and realize this is not a hot-button issue for most Pennsylvanians,” Nightingale said. "There are concerns that a lot of activists are dismissing. Many people still believe marijuana is a gateway drug. We need to win them over to our side, because they believe it’s a genuine issue.
“We’re enjoying this moment of incredible political and popular support that we’ve never experienced before, and it’s intoxicating and easy to think that nothing can stop us now," Nightingale said. “But if you remember the struggle we had to legalize cannabis for medical use, there’s a whole lot that could stop us before Gov. Wolf or his successor can sign something like this into law.”
The new bill has provisions that would protect employees from being fired for having a nonintoxicating level of THC in their blood. It would also reinstate driving privileges to those convicted of minor cannabis offenses.
Les Stark, executive director of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to changing cannabis laws, said state lawmakers are running out of time.
“One [Republican legislator] I know thinks that marijuana should be regulated like lettuce — and that lettuce is over-regulated,” said Stark. “But he thinks legalizing recreational use could stop medical research.