To Mend Economy Amid COVID-19, Pennsylvania Governor Pushes Cannabis Legalization

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced his fall legislative agenda, and front and center was a renewed push to legalize cannabis for adult use—with a focus on small business grants and restorative justice. 

Standing behind a podium outside of a Discovery Kids Childcare Center, Wolf said the state has $1 billion in CARES Act funding from which the legislature could pull to support Pennsylvanians, adding, “One other place the money might come from is—if the legislature does what the Lt. Governor and I asked it to do back in the summer of last year—and that is to legalize recreational marijuana, and use the income from the taxes that come from recreational marijuana to supplement these loans.”

This is far from the first time that legalization has come up in Pennsylvania. Wolf also called for lawmakers to consider legalization last year. Attorney General Josh Shapiro also announced last year that he supports efforts to legalize. In the legislature, Rep. Jake Wheatley introduced  legalization legislation last year, while state senators Daylin Leach and Sharif Street also announced plans last year to pursue a legalization bill focused on social and criminal justice. 

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who has been a vocal supporter of legalization, told Cannabis Wire that now is the time to use legalization as an economic driver. 

“Now that we have this COVID crisis, it’s impossible to overstate how critical it is that we create new jobs and new revenue sources. And if we do it, that it doesn’t require any subsidization. If we do it, that it doesn’t require anything other than a turn switch law,” Fetterman said.

Wolf signed a medical cannabis bill into law in April 2016, and the program went live in February 2018. A two-year report on the state’s program showed that, as of May, the state had registered 297,317 medical cannabis patients, and 29,040 caregivers. 

As is now often the case as lawmakers initiate discussions about legalization, conversations around restorative justice and criminal justice are already coming up, too. 

“The governor proposes that a portion of the [cannabis] revenue be used to further restorative justice programs that give priority to repairing the harm done to crime victims and communities as a result of marijuana criminalization,” Wolf’s office wrote. “Also, the governor wants the General Assembly to pursue criminal justice reform policies that restore justice for individuals convicted of marijuana-related offenses.” 

Fetterman led a statewide listening tour between February and May 2019. A subsequent report highlighted that, based on show-of-hand counts, 65 to 70% of attendees favored adult-use legalization. Residents who voiced their support cited their desire to bolster the economy through jobs and tax revenue, while others sought criminal justice reform. 

But legalization in Pennsylvania is no slam dunk, as it’s well-known that the Republican-led General Assembly has not been keen to take it up. But could coronavirus sway some of those lawmakers, who have previously been immovable, toward legalization? 

“It has. It may. We may flip the House. And then again, I don’t know in what environment anyone can say, ‘We want to turn down hundreds of millions dollars of revenue a year for a substance that Pennsylvania is already consuming.’ And we might as well be the ones that are able to tax and regulate it and benefit from that marketplace,” Fetterman said. 

Cannabis Wire asked Fetterman if a legalization effort had a clear shot of passage this fall, given the potential for a lukewarm response from the General Assembly. 

“Of course, there’s going to be hurdles. But I think the governor affirming the importance in how critical marijuana legalization is to Pennsylvania’s future is, it can’t be understated. So, of course, there’s hurdles. I mean, it’s never a glide path, no matter what the makeup of the legislature is,” Fetterman told Cannabis Wire, adding that the Republican leadership in the General Assembly is going to be a “huge factor,” that is, “unless you flip the House and or the Senate in November. But the bottom line is simply that any legislation that passes has to have a bipartisan nature.”

When Cannabis Wire asked specifically what type of model that Pennsylvania lawmakers might pursue, and whether it would be a state-run model, as proposed by Rep. David Delloso last year, or a private model, Fetterman responded, “That’s premature. I think it’s just in the early stages of the conversation, and it’s a process.”

Fetterman pointed out that with New Jersey voters deciding on legalization this fall, and its passage looking promising with an April Monmouth University poll showing that 61% of respondents reporting that they would vote “yes” on the legalization question, that could soon mean that 40% of Pennsylvania’s population could be just a 30-minute drive “from as much legal marijuana as they want. And I think our legal marijuana is better than their legal marijuana, for Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said. 

Anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana is already mobilizing against the effort, according to a statement released by the group on Tuesday afternoon.

“This is the opposite of what one should be encouraging during a global pandemic,” said the group’s founder and president, Kevin Sabet. He added, regarding the focus on restorative justice in Pennsylvania’s plan, “There is no reason why Pennsylvania’s experience would be any different than Chicago’s, where the City Council’s Black Caucus threatened to delay legal sales when it was clear not a single person of color would hold a license to sell marijuana in the city on day one.”

Fetterman emphasized that the wheels of legalization are in motion, and that it’s only a matter of time before, state-by-state, dominos fall and states legalize. 

“It’s inevitable. I mean, it’s like death and taxes and legal marijuana. It’s coming,” Fetterman said, adding that conversations with lawmakers, in an effort to shore up support, “are going to continue and are necessary.” 

More To Mend Economy Amid COVID-19, Pennsylvania Governor Pushes Cannabis Legalization