Pennsylvania’s next-door neighbors were so close to legalizing cannabis and it didn’t go unseen by Gov. Tom Wolf. The strong interest on the subject coming from New York and New Jersey was listed as a reason why Wolf sent Lt. Gov. John Fetterman on a statewide listening tour to get feedback on Pennsylvanians thought of legalization. Fetterman, a legalization proponent, finished his tour on May 19. That coincidentally was close to the time reports came out detailing New York lawmakers’ enthusiasm about legalization had waned and in New Jersey, immediate efforts for pursuing it had changed course.
Lawmakers in New Jersey are now forging ahead with an expansion of the medical marijuana program and planning for a binding referendum on recreational uses of cannabis set for November’s ballot in 2020. Fetterman has scheduled to release a preliminary report on what he gained from his tour of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties soon. The final report however, will not be ready for several months. In the end, Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said, “the listening tour reflects Governor Wolf’s belief that this process should be driven by the people of Pennsylvania and what direction that they want the state to proceed. That has not changed.” Regardless of what the neighboring states decided to do with this issue, Abbott said the governor believes that Pennsylvania still needs to explore it seriously. “The reality is that these states could still legalize marijuana or expand access significantly, which would impact Pennsylvania communities on these borders,” Abbott said. Meanwhile, key Pennsylvania lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have stated that NY and NJ’s decisions on legalization will not affect their thinking on what should happen in PA. “I never thought this was something we would take up this year anyway,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County. “Legalizing federally prohibited drugs is not a top priority” for the House, said Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County.
Despite the Republican legislative leaders’ lack of interest and the loss of steam in the bordering states for legalization, it hasn’t defeated some of Pennsylvania’s main cannabis supporters. Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, said he and Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County are taking a more passive approach to legalization than the rush effort that went on in New York and New Jersey. “We have had more of a sustained drawn-out process to bring stakeholders in. So, I think when we get to the point where we’re ready to move forward we’re likely not to have some of the challenges that they have,” Street said. “We tend to be a little more deliberative in our process but I like to think in the end, we’re pretty good at getting it right.” He noted that the state’s gradual entrance into the legalized gambling arena is similar to the path he sees the state taking when it comes to legalization. This will give Pennsylvania residents more time to mentally adjust to it. “I think as Pennsylvanians sort of become more familiar with cannabis and get a greater understanding of just how we would envision a Pennsylvania program rollout, the likelihood of us moving to full legalization of adult use becomes greater,” he said.
In the House, Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny County, who presented his cannabis legalization bill on Jan. 3, said he too isn’t surprised by what is happening with legalization in the other states. His main concern is that of the discussion surrounding the issue on the federal level. “If Pennsylvania waits for the national government to do this then we’ll be forced kind of to respond to whatever framework they decide on for this new industry,” Wheatley said. People he spoke with expect that the federal government will eventually declassify marijuana as a schedule 1 controlled substance, or at the very least give states protection from federal intervention. “If we all believe it’s coming then it’s just a matter of time,” he said. “So it’s my belief that Pennsylvania should begin the conversation.” Corman, however, believes it’s best for Pennsylvania is watch other states’ experiences prior to making their own leap. “There certainly are mixed results from those states so I’m not surprised [New York and New Jersey] ran into roadblocks that they couldn’t get past,” he said. “I think Pennsylvania ought to sit back and allow the medical marijuana industry to begin to take hold and focus our attention on that.” That’s where the House Republican leaders are on this issue as well. Straub said, “We remain committed to successfully and safely expanding the state’s medical marijuana program.” Time will tell if and when that view changes, Corman said.“Different policy makers over the years will make different decisions," he said. "But I certainly think given the experience of New York and New Jersey, it’s certainly nowhere around the corner for us in Pennsylvania and shouldn’t be for the distant future.”