Will 2023 be the year Pennsylvania legalizes cannabis? Lawmakers have a new bill, but will need to win enough support from both parties, in both chambers, before it can move to the governor’s desk. As well as opening adult-use dispensaries statewide, the bill would also wipe past criminal records and end arrests for many more.
On July 6, a bipartisan group of lawmakers—Senators Sharif Street (D), Dan Laughlin (R), Timothy Kearney (D), John Kane (D) and Wayne Fontana (D)—introduced Senate Bill 846. It would legalize possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis, as well as purchase and gifting. Home-growing of cannabis plants would remain generally illegal, but be allowed for medical marijuana patients. Courts and law enforcement would be directed to automatically expunge criminal records for people with past convictions for things that would no longer be illegal.
The bill faces an uphill battle in the Pennsylvania legislature, where Democrats have a one-seat advantage in the House, while Republicans have a six-seat advantage in the Senate. But public opinion is solidly behind adult-use legalization: A 2022 CBS poll showed 66 percent of Pennsylvanians supported it. And newly elected Governor Josh Shapiro (D) would be expected to approve it. He supported legalization as attorney general, and campaigned on it in last year’s gubernatorial election.
“We have a unique and singular opportunity to correct decades of mass incarceration, disproportionate enforcement against marginalized communities, and the perpetuation of violence.”
Lawmakers are framing their bill as a form of justice, an end to some of the waste and abuses of the drug war.
“We have a unique and singular opportunity to correct decades of mass incarceration, disproportionate enforcement against marginalized communities, the criminalization of personal choice and the perpetuation of violence, which all materialized from the failed war on drugs,” Sen. Street said. “Legalizing the adult use of cannabis will help us fully and equitably fund education, lower property taxes, and address a variety of community needs throughout Pennsylvania.”
There’s no doubt ending arrests for cannabis use would be a huge step forward. Under current laws, marijuana enforcement is the primary driver of Pennsylvania’s drug policing and arrests. In 2021, cops arrested over 12,400 adults and 1,000 juveniles for simple possession. That averages 38 marijuana arrests every day in the state. Overall, 45 percent—nearly half—of all drug arrests were for cannabis. And prohibition has a racist effect in targeting Black residents, who are three times likelier than white counterparts to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite not being more likely to use the drug.
The proposed automatic nature of record expungement, as experiences elsewhere have demonstrated, is also a critical inclusion. By these measures alone, legalization would make a huge difference to thousands of peoples’ lives.
But in other ways, the bill risks reinforcing injustices it’s supposed to undo.
The bill goes further with a cannabis “social and economic equity” provision. This would provide grants and loans to give members of Black, Brown and other minority communities the resources to start licensed cannabis businesses. The state would be required to investigate and report on diversity numbers in the industry every year, and recommend how to lower barriers for disadvantaged groups. This designation would apply to working and lower-income people, and to marijuana arrest histories.
But in other ways, the bill risks reinforcing injustices it’s supposed to undo. The most obvious is its ban on cannabis home-growing—an option that many states guarantee residents as a legal right. Banning people from growing a plant in their own home is draconian. But home-grow also gives consumers an affordable alternative to dispensary products, and means access isn’t left only in the hands of for-profit businesses. It additionally allows people to grow the unique strains—with the right cannabinoid and terpene profiles—to match their needs. Under SB 846, people would still be forced to risk criminalization to do this.
There are other major problems. Consider the bill’s provisions for tax and revenues: The state would charge an 8 percent sales tax and 6 percent excise tax on cannabis, bringing in revenues estimated at between $400 million and $1 billion annually. That money must be used to first cover the state’s overhead costs in regulating the new market. But any remaining funds would go to municipalities that allow cannabis businesses, and to the state’s general fund to “provide economic relief to this Commonwealth.”
Put simply, governments would get to dip their hand into the money jar and potentially do whatever they wanted with it. So it’s far from clear whether funds would be set aside for programs with relevant benefits—like jobs training and education for formerly incarcerated people—or used in more harmful ways.
Cue, the cops. The bill promises to prioritize “public safety”—empowering police to “adjudicate” cannabis-impaired driving and “eradicate” the illicit market, according to Sen. Street. You can all but guarantee that an illicit market will persist even after legalization, and it’s easy to imagine legal-cannabis revenues funding police task forces to go after it, equipped with more vehicles and guns. We know this happened in California, for example, which legalized in 2016 but has seen continued illicit activity, arrests of Black and Brown residents, and a sometimes militarized police crackdown funded, in part, by cannabis taxes.
Pennsylvania is almost surrounded by legal-cannabis states. If it legalizes, the market dynamics wil dramatically change.
To date, 23 US states and Washington, DC have legalized adult-use cannabis. It’s significant that the Northeast, especially, has seen rapid changes in cannabis laws—New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Virginia and Maryland have all legalized within just the past few years. That’s left Pennsylvania almost surrounded by legal-cannabis states, meaning residents can just drive over the border to buy their weed and bring it home.
If Pennsylvania legalizes, those market dynamics will dramatically change. Philadelphia, on the interstate 95 corridor between New York City and Washington DC, would certainly become a regional hub for cannabis retail. And Pittsburgh—in southwest Pennsylvania and close to two states, Ohio and West Virginia, that still enforce prohibition—could also become an important center in the Midwest and Ohio River region. As the industry grows, it could even draw new residents to the state, especially New Yorkers and New Jerseyans lured by cheaper housing.
But we’re still a long way from all that. Lawmakers will have to figure out how to get the bill to the finish line. In doing so, they need to give hard thought to whether generating a multi-billion dollar industry will come at the expense of people most harmed by prohibition.