Three things to know about Pa.’s latest legal cannabis proposal

By: - March 24, 2019 7:14 am

Pennsylvanians over the age of 21 would be able to legally use recreational cannabis under a bill expected to be introduced soon in the Pennsylvania state Senate.

But the bill has a long way to go — and a lot of Republican opposition to overcome — before it can land on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

Senators Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, and Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, announced the bill Monday in a memo to their colleagues, where they said that legalizing recreational cannabis would remedy the injustices of the War on Drugs and generate revenue for Pennsylvania’s communities and public schools.

“Cannabis is still widely available to purchase illegally, and yet we disproportionately arrest, prosecute, monitor, and incarcerate thousands of nonviolent Pennsylvanians who are poor and people of color,” the memo reads. “Cannabis prohibition is an immoral and expensive failure of public policy.”

They’ve introduced similar bills in the past with no luck. This time around, though, they’re operating in a different climate.

Wolf said last year that it was time for Pennsylvania to take a “serious look” at legalizing marijuana. The same month, public polls showed that 59 percent of Pennsylvanians support legalization — up from 22 percent in 2006.

Lt. Gov John Fetterman is currently conducting a statewide listening tour, where he’s stopping in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to hear people sound off on the issue. And there’s a legalization effort underway in the House, thanks to a bill introduced by Rep. Jake Wheatly, D-Allegheny.

Street said on Monday that the lawmakers made social justice, inclusion, and economic development their priorities in crafting the new bill. Here are three things to know about it.

The program would be administered by the state’s Department of Agriculture.

Rather letting the Bureau of Drugs and Alcohol or the state Department of Revenue to administer its marijuana laws, as some other states do, the new Senate proposal would put recreational marijuana under the purview of the Department of Agriculture.

“We want to treat this as a normal agricultural product,” said Micah Mahjoubian, Street’s policy director. “This really is a unique part of the [proposed] Pennsylvania model, that we would treat it purely as an agricultural commodity.”

The state’s medical marijuana program would still be administered by the Department of Health, Mahjoubian said.

The Department of Agriculture already oversees the state’s production of hemp, a cannabis cousin that doesn’t have any psychoactive properties.

State Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding announced in January that the state had submitted a plan for full commercial production of industrial hemp to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The updated federal Farm Bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump in December, opened the doors to hemp production by removing the plant from the federal Controlled Substances list.

It would create low barriers of entry into the cannabis biz

One goal of the Senate bill is to create an inclusive cannabis industry, Mahjoubian said. That means making it easy for anyone to grow cannabis for personal use or get involved in commercial production and distribution.

The proposal would allow anyone over the age of 21 obtain a permit to grow up to six cannabis plants in their homes for personal use. It would also let permitted “micro-growers” sell home-grown cannabis to processors and dispensaries.

The bill also proposes one key difference from the state’s medical marijuana program, which currently distributes a set number of permits to growers, processors, and dispensaries. That process is fiercely competitive (and, some argue, not transparent) and caps the number of marijuana-related businesses that can operate in the state.

The recreational program Street and Leach are proposing wouldn’t cap the number of permits for recreational marijuana growers, processors and businesses. Growers would have to comply with increasingly strict regulations as their production increases, but there’s no limit to how many qualified establishments could apply to enter the cannabis industry

Their bill would also create permits for a new type of marijuana enterprise: a “public consumption lounge,” which is the only place in public where marijuana can be consumed. (Think of it as a bar for marijuana users.)

There are only nine such marijuana lounges in the U.S., according to the cannabis industry news site Leafly. Seven are in San Francisco; Oakland, California and Denver, Colorado have one each.

Proceeds from marijuana sales would be distributed to schools and criminal justice initiatives

Street estimates that the annual revenue from the program would be close to $600. (The state’s Auditor General put the figure at $581 million in an analysis last year.)

That figure reflects tax revenue, minus the cost of the program’s administration, and doesn’t include potential savings from lower prosecution and incarceration of marijuana users, Street said.

The bulk of the tax revenue would come from an excise tax. Mahjoubian said the tax rate “still has to be worked out,” but would be less than 25 percent.

Street and Leach want to direct the revenue back to schools. Their proposal calls for the proceeds of the program to be funneled through the state’s fair funding formula, which would particularly benefit rapidly growing suburban districts and urban districts that have been traditionally underfunded, Street said.

Street said districts could use the new revenue to provide property tax relief to their residents.

Street also anticipates that the proposal will save money in Pennsylvania’s courts and corrections systems. Those savings would be directed back to communities as part of the state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative — an ongoing effort to take savings generated by criminal justice reforms and use them to fund addiction treatment and other non-penal public safety programs.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.