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Recreation/Adult Use in PA?

Pennsylvania is inching toward legal recreational marijuana. However, policymakers still have many questions about what this potentially multi-billion-dollar industry would look like.

In December of 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf alluded to being open to the idea of recreational marijuana in PA, after years of uncertainty. Recently elected Lt. Gov. John Fetterman then went on a 67-county listening tour to collect public opinion on the issue. Different proposals have been making rounds in Harrisburg, including a pending bill from Democratic Senators Daylin Leach and Sharif Street that would allow consumption by anyone over 21 years of age, allow private residents to grow up to six plants for personal use, and create a path to expunge past criminal convictions. However, there is certainly some resistance to legalization. State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman called the idea “reckless and irresponsible” in December.

In kind, various criminal justice and public health advocacy groups have opposed legalization. In part, this opposition is due to the lack of extensive research into the long-term effects of cannabis. This lack of research can be attributed to marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, listed alongside drugs such as ecstasy, heroin and LSD. Fetterman, who has previously supported legalization, was keen to say, during a Democratic policy hearing, that his listening tour was not made in-order-to promote a specific end goal. He went on to say that his ideas are independent of the Wolf administration. “I don’t speak for Gov. Wolf,” the lieutenant governor said Monday. “But I know [he] believes it’s critical to have this conversation.” The hearing was primarily filled with experts in favor of decriminalizing cannabis, legalizing it for adults to use, or both. It is noted however, that legislators will still have to resolve some key issues among the various advocates and stakeholders.

Leach, Street and others have taken efforts to reframe the issue from one about recreational usage, to adult usage. It may seem like an insignificant point, but the language used in describing a proposal can dramatically affect the public’s perception of it. A good example of this is the wording used in describing abortion rights: Are the opponents “anti-abortion” or are they “pro-life”? Roz McCarthy, founder of the advocacy group Minorities for Medical Marijuana, said using the word “recreational” to describe legalization efforts leads to push back due to the misplaced fear that the youth will instantly gain access to hallucinogens. “Recreational [can mean] ‘this is something for fun, this is something for children’,” she said. “We need to call it what it is and it’s adult use.” For McCarthy, though, it’s not just a matter of semantics. Any legalization bill must include an educational component, she said, that teaches both adults and young people about their rights and responsibilities because legalization doesn’t mean it’s suddenly legal for people to consume marijuana anywhere and at any age. “Teens aren’t dummies. They see what’s happening with medical marijuana,” she said. “If we’re not teaching them ‘this is not for you, this is for adults,’ we’re doing an injustice to our children.”, McCarthy concluded.

Since the moment Pennsylvania passed medical marijuana legislation in 2016, there has been a flood of interest in the limited number of permits to be awarded and overseen by the state Department of Health. One reason for the increase in interest was the idea that a permit to sell medical marijuana would instantly give a company an advantage when it was legalized recreationally. The idea was discussed by several advocates and lawmakers at the hearing. “Permittees already went through a very rigorous compliance process,” said Corrine Ogrodnik, owner of the Pittsburgh-based Maitri Medicinals. “When you walk through our doors, you’ll find an extremely professional, calm and secure place to be.” The case here is that laid medical marijuana growers and dispensaries have already worked through the pitfalls of production, distribution and security. “It’s important to recognize we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Ogrodnik said.

The distribution of permits seems to favor the affluent and the well-positioned, because of their ability to hire experts to make their case and to set up their operations quickly. It is no coincidence that many of the companies that were awarded medical marijuana permits are from out-of-state firms with wealthy backers and experience in the industry. McCarthy, who supports hiring diverse workforces and creating opportunities for minority permit holders, calls this “the Willy Wonka effect” after the Roald Dahl novel and its various film adaptations. “Everyone’s clamoring to get five golden tickets,” she said, “The person with the most money gets those tickets.” This can be appeased somewhat by slicing a state into many different permitting districts and requiring applicants to show their dedication to diverse hiring, both things Pennsylvania did with medical marijuana. However, McCarthy said there hasn’t been any compliance factor to ensure permit holders live up to their promises. “If you have five companies not [being] held accountable from a participation standpoint, that skews the diversity ecosystem,” she said. Fetterman said another proposal that’s come up during his various stops across the state is to treat marijuana like alcohol: to sell it in state-run stores. “Even those who don’t support recreational use [say] that would allay some of their concern it’ll be the wild, wild west so to speak,” he said. Considering recent efforts by the legislative Republican majorities to decimate the state liquor store system, that fortuity seems to be a political non-starter.

Legalization supporters frequently put forth two key arguments: First, that legal cannabis will undermine the illegal and sometimes violent black market for the drug. Second, that it will help soothe some of the mass incarceration that has come with marijuana prohibition and the war on drugs more broadly. However, legalization all by itself won’t achieve either of those goals. Steve Reilly, general counsel for the Massachusetts-based marijuana firm INSA, said the best way to undermine the illegal market is for the legal alternatives to be less expensive. One way to do that, he said, is to tax the legal products at a low enough rate that they’re cheap enough to convince users to buy from legal companies. His recommendation is a tax rate of 15 to 17 percent. “Massachusetts’ rate [20 percent in places that opt for a 3 percent local tax] is slightly high,” he said. “You end up with products more costly than the illegal market, which allows that illegal market to continue.” The other part is decriminalization, which usually means reduced or eliminated consequences for nonviolent marijuana-related crimes. It could also mean creating a system for expunging past marijuana convictions, something that can assist with ex-offenders getting jobs and moving on with their lives. Fetterman said Monday the vast majority of people he’s encountered on his listening tour support decriminalization–even those who don’t necessarily support legalizing recreational marijuana. “They don’t want to see anyone’s lives damaged further for past [convictions],” he said. “We need to free people from that kind of damage.”

Medical marijuana access has risen across the state, but as Fetterman noted on Monday, only for those with the financial wherewithal to spend hundreds of dollars to be seen by a certified doctor, 0btain a card, and incur the additional costs per month related to the prescription. Due to its prohibition under Federal law, there is zero insurance coverage for medical marijuana. One potential solution, which is dependent upon full legalization, is to allow for the cultivation of small amounts of cannabis for personal use. Leach and Street’s proposal, for example, would allow for up to six plants to be grown. The idea of growing marijuana at home appeals to many conservatives Fetterman has met on the road. “[They say,] ‘I don’t want my tax dollars spent going after folks with a few joints’,” he said. “‘If I can grow peppers and tomatoes in my back yard, I should be able to grow a few cannabis plants, as well.'” Pennsylvania-based growers will be at a disadvantage when this larger recreational industry comes to fruition. “No small farmers have been able to get into medical marijuana,” said Judy Wicks, a Philadelphia restauranteur who started a rural/urban agricultural partnership. “[We have to be] cautious in adult use that it not just be built on companies that already have licenses for medical.”

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