First batch of marijuana pardons under expedited review head to Wolf’s desk

The Lancaster stop on Lt. Gov. John Fetterman's legal marijuana listening tour. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

(Updated: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of votes needed to be granted an expedited pardon.) 

The results were clear.

The final report produced after Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s 67-county cannabis listening tour in 2019 showed 65 to 70 percent of the thousands of tour attendees support “adult-use cannabis legalization.”

Over 80 percent of the more than 40,000 comments collected, including emails and phone calls, were in support of legalization.

So Gov. Tom Wolf and Fetterman boiled these results down into three steps they want the state to take: getting the Legislature to pass a decriminalization bill, calling on the General Assembly to “seriously debate” full legalization, and expunging past convictions of non-violent, cannabis-related crimes.

But as multiple marijuana-related bills languish in the GOP-controlled Legislature, Wolf and Fetterman, both Democrats, decided to move forward with what’s in their control.

Led by Fetterman, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons established an expedited marijuana-related pardon program in September 2019.

Last week, the first 26 applicants to the program were approved by the Pardons Board, and headed to Wolf’s desk for clemency.

Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for Wolf, said the Democratic governor is “very supportive” of the expedited pardon program and noted he will review each of the 26 applicants individually.

“While marijuana remains illegal in Pennsylvania, the governor supports considering legalization and short of that, he is hopeful that the pardons programs allows many Pennsylvanians charged with these low-level crimes to receive a second chance and not have their bright futures unfairly hindered,” Kensinger said.

The accelerated track means an applicant could receive a pardon within nine months, compared to the typical pardon process that could take up to three years, according to Pardons Board Secretary Brandon Flood. He said his office has received 234 applications for expedited reviews since the program launched last year.

An expedited pardon applicant needs three-fifths majority support from the five-member pardon board, which includes Fetterman and Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

An individual is eligible for the new expedited program if he or she was convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana either for personal use or with the intent to distribute, as well as certain paraphernalia-related offenses. Anyone convicted of a violent offense or driving under the influence of marijuana is not eligible.

Christina Kauffman, a spokeswoman for Fetterman, said that as long as an applicant is eligible under the program, and meets the other traditional Pardons Board criteria, “they are likely to be approved.”

“The board is both eager and ready to review however many expedited applications that come before it — both in calendar year 2020 and in subsequent years,” Flood said. “We strongly encourage any and all eligible individuals to apply.”

Jeff Riedy, the executive director of the Lehigh Valley’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is pushing for full legalization — but supports the new program as a positive step forward.

The roughly two-thirds of Pennsylvanians who expressed support for marijuana legalization during Fetterman’s listening tour mirror national trends, according to a Pew Research Center study last year.

Riedy said since the program is retroactive — meaning individuals convicted of low-level marijuana-related crimes years ago can apply for the expedited pardon —the scope of the program is important.

“We arrest over 20,000 people in Pennsylvania for small possession of cannabis per year. If one-third are eligible, you go back five years, and we’ve already affected and improved the lives of 35,000 people,” Riedy said. “It’s substantial.”

Marijuana laws in the state, however, have gotten choppy and complex, as public support for legalization clashes with Republican opposition in the Legislature.

A resolution sponsored by Rep. James Struzzi, R-Indiana, for example, which called on the Food and Drug Administration to consider guidelines and protocols for the approval and sale of cannabis legally, has been stuck in committee since last September.

As localities grow frustrated with a lack of meaningful marijuana reform in recent years — save for the state’s popular medical marijuana program — individual municipalities have decided to take action.

At least 12 municipalities across the state have passed decriminalization ordinances, which levy a fine against an individual caught with a small amount of marijuana as opposed to a misdemeanor offense.

Under state law, even possessing a small amount of marijuana could mean prison time. Marijuana is currently listed as a Schedule I drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, putting it in the same category as other drugs like heroin.

Kensinger wouldn’t say whether Wolf supports individual municipalities passing their own marijuana ordinances that conflict with state law.

But even in those cities that have decriminalized marijuana, law enforcement aren’t always on board.

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin, a Republican, said he will not enforce a decriminalization ordinance, thereby essentially rendering moot the decriminalization ordinance passed in Allentown and in the Lehigh County section of Bethlehem.

Riedy said as cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, York, Lancaster and Erie have passed local decriminalization ordinances, better than 25 percent of the state’s population is now under the lesser penalties for small marijuana possession.

“We watched as Philly and Pittsburgh ticked off their decriminalization measures, and we were frustrated, and we were trying to figure out a way to do things here (in the Lehigh Valley),” Riedy said. “It wasn’t happening in Harrisburg, so the local efforts are more than anything … the voice of the people, showing our state legislators that, look, if you can’t get it done in the state, we have enough support from city council and residents to get it done locally.”

He said as public support continues to turn toward marijuana legalization, he is holding out hope the November elections could bring some change to Harrisburg — though he admits it’s unlikely.

“We’re in a stalemate,” Riedy said. “We can’t really go very far except for introducing legislation. And legislation sits and it dies.”

Jordan Wolman is a summer intern for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association. Follow him on Twitter @JordanWolman.