Rep. Jake Wheatley thinks Pa. is ready for recreational pot – again

    Rep. Jake Wheatley's plan to legalize recreational marijuana would focus tax revenues to community revitalization and education funding. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

    Pointing to neighboring states and the potential for hundreds of millions in annual revenue, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, on Monday reintroduced legislation to let individuals 21 and older use marijuana for recreational purposes.

    “We’re hearing even right now the potential of $1.5 billion structural gap,” Wheatley, D-Allegheny, said. “So here is the opportunity to get $500 to $600 billion dollars and a new industry.”

    The bill, HB50, would put tax revenue from sales into reducing student debt, funding local public defenders, after-school programs and affordable housing among other community investments. It would also retroactively vacate marijuana convictions and rescind suspended drivers’ and professional licenses for marijuana use, while encouraging state farmers to grow cannabis.

    Calls to at least consider legalizing it have come from many quarters, including even formerly skeptical Gov. Tom Wolf. His new Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is about to embark on a listening tour to gather input on recreational cannabis. The renewed interest from Democrats come as polls show an increasing number of Pennsylvania’s support the measure.

    Support from legislative Republicans may be harder to find.

    Following Wolf’s halting support to look at the issue, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, issued a statement saying that “as long as I am leader, I will do everything in my power to prevent legalization of recreational marijuana” citing public health concerns. Even medical cannabis champion Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, has taken a skeptical tone on full legalization.

    Meanwhile, last fall, the House Judiciary Committee passed a decriminalization bill sponsored by Rep. Barry Jozwiak, R-Berks, that gave smokers two strikes before they’d face serious charges for possession of small amount of weed.

    After passing with a bipartisan 19-5 margin, it never received further action. Wheatley put the odds at 80 or 90 percent that a similar decriminalization bill could move this session.

    In response, Mike Straub, spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, pointed to the continuing federal restrictions on marijuana as a drag on advancing reforms of marijuana policy

    “The priorities of House Republican members do not include legalizing federally prohibited drugs,” Straub said in an email. “They do include addressing the opioid epidemic and ensuring there is no abuse of the medical marijuana program which is still in its infancy in this state.”

    But pointing to the circumstances that led to the legalization of gaming in Keystone state over a decade ago — divided government, a budget hole and neighboring states leaving Pennsylvania behind — Wheatley saw reasons for optimism.

    “People said ‘no way would you get casinos and those types of things in Pennsylvania, because we’re not going to be Las Vegas of the east,'” Wheatley said. “Well [now] we have casinos, table games [and] sports betting.”

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