Hoping to aid farmers and boost state revenue, two Pennsylvania state senators are introducing a bill to legalize recreational marijuana.
“I think we’re at a point in time in Pennsylvania when we should have the adult conversation about this,” Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Millcreek Township, said in an interview this week with the Lancaster Farming Industrial Hemp Podcast.
Laughlin and Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, announced plans on Feb. 24 to introduce a roughly 70-page bill that would outline who could farm marijuana, who could use it, and how the currently illegal crop would be regulated.
The bill will likely face opposition, but if approved, it would designate the third form of cannabis that can be farmed and consumed, under strict regulations, in Pennsylvania. Medical marijuana and non-intoxicating hemp are already legal.
Marijuana Bill to Outline Who Can Grow and How Much
Laughlin and Street’s bill would allow 100 marijuana micro-cultivation centers to be licensed in the program’s first year. Another 50 growing operations would be accepted the following year. After that, supply and demand would determine expansion, Laughlin said.
The micro-cultivation centers would be subject to a production limit called a canopy cap.
The state’s marijuana industry would be overseen by a state cannabis board, which would rely on the Agriculture and Health departments for much of its expertise.
Marijuana would not be grown in open fields like corn, but Street said he doesn’t want to require expensive buildings either.
A high tunnel might be enough to avoid cross-pollination with a nearby hemp crop, he said. Such intermixing could yield hemp above the legal THC limit and marijuana that is not very potent — a bad outcome for both farmers.
A protected growing environment is also necessary to reduce the risk of theft.
“The idea is to try and (write the bill) in a way that protects the public safety and keeps it affordable for farmers,” said Street, who serves on the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
Keeping Hemp Growing Accessible
Indeed, the bill contains special considerations to allow small operations and people of color to get permits.
“We want this to be accessible to the kind of mom-and-pop types, if you will,” Laughlin said. “Obviously the minority communities, we’d want them to have a crack at this, instead of just, you know, Big Tobacco rushing in and saying, ‘All right, we’ve got all hundred grow centers.’ That’s not our intent at all.”
Those footholds for small growers could address one of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s objections to recreational marijuana.
The ag lobby supported legalizing medical marijuana a few years ago, but that crop has failed to be a game-changer for Pennsylvania farmers.
The state allowed just 25 grower-processors, each of which had to pay a $200,000 permit fee.
Based on that experience and the rules for recreational cannabis in other states, “it seems unlikely that recreational marijuana would be a viable crop for many Pennsylvania farmers if it were legalized here,” Farm Bureau spokesman Liam Migdail said.
While hemp and medical marijuana could be justified as providing new manufacturing materials and doctor-prescribed pain relief, recreational weed may be a harder sell to lawmakers.
To many people, marijuana is a symbol of unwholesomeness and danger, crime and drug abuse.
It is also, of course, illegal.
The federal government places marijuana in its most tightly regulated class of controlled substances, reserved for drugs with a high risk of abuse and no currently accepted medical use.
States are free to designate the drug differently, and many have. By last May, according to the Congressional Research Service, all but three states had allowed medical marijuana, and a dozen had permitted its recreational counterpart.
State legalization doesn’t eliminate the risk of federal prosecution, or even make banks comfortable offering loans to marijuana companies.
But the Justice Department has shifted some of its focus away from marijuana over the past decade.
The Obama administration famously indicated in a 2013 memo that it was not wild about chasing pot users who complied with state law.
The Trump administration dispensed with that policy. Still, marijuana-related court cases fell by double digits in 2018 and 2019 while drug crime proceedings rose overall, according to federal judicial reports.
President Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland, said in his Feb. 22 confirmation hearing that nonviolent marijuana possession does not warrant imprisonment and that such charges have disproportionately affected people of color.
“We can focus our attention on violent crimes and other crimes that put great danger in our society, and not allocate our resources to something like marijuana possession,” Garland said.
Laughlin and Street’s bill would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and expunge all nonviolent state-level marijuana convictions.
Driving under the influence would still be illegal. The minimum age to use marijuana would be 21.
One key reason Pennsylvania should get in on marijuana production now, Laughlin and Street say, is money.
New Jersey has legalized marijuana, and the senators say New York could be close behind. If Pennsylvania doesn’t keep up with those neighboring states, they say, it could miss out on jobs and at least $400 million in tax revenue generated by the industry.
They share that sentiment with one of the state’s best-known marijuana advocates — Senate candidate and current Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who visited every county in the state to discuss legalization two years ago.
“We have a thriving cannabis market within Pennsylvania already. It’s just illegal. And all of the revenue and all of that is going to drug cartels, and we are left with criminality,” Fetterman said in a September interview with PennLive.
In the 2019 fiscal year, marijuana tax collections ranged from $25 million in Alaska to $780 million in California, according to Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office.
The senators also say public opinion is on their side.
A 2019 Franklin & Marshall College poll found that 58% of registered Pennsylvania voters said they supported making marijuana use legal.
Two-thirds of Democrats and independents backed the idea. So did 45% of Republicans, though only a third of self-described conservatives were on board.
Many legislative Republicans, including House Speaker Bryan Cutler, are among the naysayers.
They say legalization would raise thorny issues for employers, raise public safety concerns, and put young people at risk.
“We do not believe easing regulations on illegal drugs is the right move in helping the thousands of Pennsylvanians who are battling drug addiction,” House GOP leaders said in 2019.
Since announcing the marijuana bill, Laughlin said he has received some angry phone calls — but also a lot of responses he hadn’t foreseen.
“I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve had roll in since I’ve sponsored this, just from people who are using our medical cannabis program now to get off of opioids and treating some of their PTSD and issues like that,” he said.
Laughlin and Street expect support from both parties will increase as their colleagues hear similar stories from their own constituents. Laughlin said some Republican lawmakers like the proposal but are wary of backlash.
Even in the Senate Democratic caucus, where support for legalization is nearly unanimous, few would have publicly voiced their support until recently.
“Elected officials are naturally cautious, and I think there’s just a testing of the waters,” Street said.
Farmers will soon see what comes of that testing.
Eric Hurlock contributed reporting. Listen to his full interview with Laughlin and Street on the Lancaster Farming Industrial Hemp Podcast.
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