In what was likely the first hearing on recreational cannabis in Pennsylvania House history, Republican lawmakers on Monday focused on the potential risk to gun owners who might partake.
Marijuana is still a federally scheduled narcotic, meaning an individual cannot, under federal law, legally own a gun and use cannabis. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives established the policy in 2011 letter to federal firearm sellers.
Arnold, under questioning from Rep. Pam DeLissio, said that he doesn't know of any cases were federal authorities have cracked down on a pot smoking, gun toting Pennsylvanian for breaking federal law.
— Stephen Caruso (@StephenJ_Caruso) June 3, 2019
“I think that is one of the lesser known issues,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, said after the hearing.
He added that as “Pennsylvania is an extraordinary state when it comes to gun ownership and Second Amendment rights,” residents would likely want to know more before the commonwealth considers legalization.
A 2015 study from Boston and Columbia universities estimated that 27.1 percent of Pennsylvanians were gun owners, two percentage points less than the national average.
The impact of cannabis use for gun owners would not be a new issue for Pennsylvania, which made marijuana available to some medical patients in 2018.
Dave Arnold, Lebanon County’s district attorney, said patients at the moment must choose between using cannabis and having a gun. A representative from the state’s Sheriffs’ Association testified Monday that not having access to Department of Health records interferes with a sheriff’s ability to issue concealed carry permits.
Monday’s hearing also served as an opening salvo from the House GOP in the growing debate over cannabis legalization in Pennsylvania — a debate at least partially fueled by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s recently completed listening tour.
Speaking to the Capital-Star in May after the journey ended in Philadelphia, Fetterman estimated that somewhere around two-thirds of Pennsylvanians backed legalizing cannabis for personal use.
The 67-county tour hit the entire state in less than 100 days, and took input from tens of thousands of state residents.
“We had good participation across the board. And as was always the case, if there was a legislator or even a commissioner who felt really strongly [that] they wanted to speak and share their views, it’s like, here’s the microphone,” Fetterman told the Capital-Star. “It was very open in that regard. There wasn’t anybody that participated that left that meeting saying like, ‘wow, I really felt like you steered the conversation.'”
Kauffman said Monday’s hearing was not timed to coincide with the end of Fetterman’s sojourn, calling it “happenstance.”
The hearing included law enforcement, as well as representatives from gun rights and gun control groups. They mostly balked on giving an opinion on marijuana legalization, but explained that the existing conflict between state and federal law would create issues for gun owners.
Adjacent issues, such as how to conduct effective field sobriety tests with a driver suspected of using cannabis, were also raised. Some lawmakers used the hearing as a platform to express their concerns over legalization in general.
Rep. Jerry Knowles, a no vote on medical marijuana (also opposed a decrim bill last year) said that "we didn’t give any thought to the position we were putting law enforcement in" when they passed medical cannabis. Asks to slow down on passing any weed expansion.
— Stephen Caruso (@StephenJ_Caruso) June 3, 2019
Kauffman said Monday’s hearing is just the start. Consideration of a legalization bill from Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, could mean deep dives into the impact on human service spending or the Liquor Control Board — which would manage the program per the legislation’s language.
“I think there’s going to be a lot more discussion and conversation over the next few years prior to acting on any of those pieces of legislation,” Kauffman said.
Wheatley told the Capital-Star he liked the angle of the hearing and hopes it will help convince Republicans to support legalization.
In response to Second Amendment concerns, the veteran legislator said he is preparing a letter to Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro asking him to challenge the federal government’s interference with the gun rights of Pennsylvania citizens who have a medical cannabis card.
“Why should our residents be burdened with the fear that the feds are going to somehow make it illegal to own and bear arms when in our state we said it’s legal?” Wheatley said.
But Wheatley isn’t on board with Kauffman’s proposed years-long timeframe for legalization.
With legislation in Congress to reschedule marijuana or limit federal regulation, Wheatley said Pennsylvania should be pushing forward with a solution that fits the state.
“All it takes is leaders willing to lead,” Wheatley said. “It shouldn’t take a year.”