Could 2023 be the year of legal weed in Pennsylvania? Maybe, but don’t count on it.
Cynthia Greer - Philly Inquirer
While at least four states around Pennsylvania have legalized or will vote to legalize weed soon, the Keystone State has yet to legalize adult-use marijuana.
Whether people buy marijuana legally in New Jersey or illegally in the underground market, it’s a crime for them to possess, consume, grow, or sell marijuana in Pennsylvania. Only medical marijuana patients can legally buy and consume cannabis from state-approved dispensaries here.
While at least four states around Pennsylvania have legalized or will vote to legalize weed soon, one may be surprised to learn that the path to recreational marijuana legalization in the Keystone State is still quite long. The rapidly shifting attitudes nationally have created a situation in which Pennsylvania begins to stand out for having no level of legalization, decriminalization, or regulation.
We talked to a state policymaker, cannabis advocates, entrepreneurs, and legal experts to understand where Pennsylvania is at when it comes to legalizing adult-use marijuana.
Here are five takeaways on marijuana-legalization efforts in the state.
When will weed be legal in Pennsylvania? It could happen as soon as next year
Some marijuana law experts can see legalization happening in 2023.
“I think it will be in the next 12 months,” said Judith Cassel, a cannabis lawyerwho’s worked in Pennsylvania medical marijuana law since before it was legalized for medical use in 2016. “I think it would have probably passed this summer, but for the confluence of PPP funds coming in and it being an election year for the midterms, and so forth — I just think policymakers felt, ‘Let’s not mess with one more thing.’ ”
How would it work? Legislators in the Pennsylvania House or Senate would need to pass a bill and the governor signs it into law, or legalization gets put on the ballot for voters to decide (like what happened in New Jersey).
Of course, the federal government could legalize marijuana nationwide (both the U.S. House and Senate introduced bills in 2022), but that has yet to happen. Using and possessing marijuana remains federally illegal. And under the Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, in the same category as heroin and LSD, and is considered to be highly addictive with no medical value.
However, a major step toward legalization happened on Oct. 6, when President Joe Biden announced plans to pardon all prior federal offenses for simple marijuana possession and asked federal agencies to review marijuana’s scheduling under federal law.
“I think sometime in 2023 the conversations are going to be had,” said DeVaughn Ward, head of legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Whether or not the political will is there to do it, that certainly remains up for discussion, but the conversation about legalization certainly will be had in the 2023 session.”
What’s holding up legal weed in Pennsylvania? Legalization would need bipartisan support.
There are Democrat and Republican lawmakers in both chambers of the state legislature who want to legalize recreational marijuana, however state policymakers pushing for legalization still need to sway the many Republican legislators who oppose it.
Pennsylvania’s governor would need to support legalization. Gov. Tom Wolf supports cannabis legalization, as does Lt. Gov. John Fetterman — who visited all 67 counties in the state on a listening tour about marijuana — however their terms are expiring and other candidates are on November’s ballot.
Democratic nominee for governor, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, supports legalization. Republican nominee for governor, State Sen. Doug Mastriano, does not support legalization. Whoever controls Pennsylvania’s executive branch will have significant say.
The majority of Pennsylvania wants legal marijuana
In Pennsylvania, 6 out of 10 registered voters want marijuana legalized, according to the most recent polling by Franklin & Marshall College. Muhlenberg College found almost the same results in its poll.
Jushi Holdings Inc., one of the largest dispensary owners and overall cannabis operators in the state, conducted surveys in five districts with Republican state senators in Pennsylvania. Out of a total 2,500 respondents, 9 out of 10 said they want to see a regulated adult-use cannabis program, according to Trent Woloveck, Jushi’s chief commercial director.
Democratic State Sen. Sharif Street, who cosigned a legalization bill with Republican State Sen. Dan Laughlin, said constituents across Pennsylvania tell him they want to see a regulated adult-use marijuana market.
“I hear from people in the rural and urban communities, Black and white, old and young, immigrants and people whose family have been here for generations,” Street said. “People overwhelmingly believe the time for cannabis legalization has come, and in most polls, over three-quarters of people, both Democrats and Republicans, support cannabis. It is one of the most unifying things that I’ve ever seen that people are ready to move forward with.”
There’s a lot of tax revenue leaving the state
With New York and New Jersey legalizing adult-use cannabis, and Marylandand Ohio voters deciding on whether to legalize marijuana this November, Pennsylvania could watch a lot of potential tax dollars flow out of the state.
How much money could Pennsylvania make from marijuana sales? Millions of dollars a month.
Around 600,000 Pennsylvania medical marijuana patients were eligible to buy legal weed at dispensaries last year. From July 2021 to June 2022, the state government earned more than $35 million in tax revenue on medical marijuana sales alone — that’s not
including the revenue from licensing and other fees.
In New Jersey, the first 10 weeks of adult-use cannabis sales brought in $4.6 million in tax revenue. And if trends continue, New Jersey could be looking at more than $20 million in tax revenue in the first year of legal weed.
Restorative justice and addressing the war on drugs is a must
Not only is nonmedical marijuana still illegal in the state, but it’s also heavily criminalized. About 13,000 Pennsylvanians were arrested for marijuana possession last year. Of those arrested, Black residents were five times more likely to be arrested for possession than white residents, according to police records. In places like Allegheny or Philadelphia Counties, where marijuana is decriminalized, the penalties for possessing small amounts are typically nothing more than fines ranging from $25 to $100, but people who are on parole or probation still risk incarceration for marijuana-related offenses.
“We have the opportunity to be the leading state for cannabis legalization, but it’s really going to take everybody coming together,” said Kristal Bush, a Philadelphia entrepreneur and founder of Stay Lyfted and Free My Weedman. Before cannabis entrepreneurship, she ran Bridging the Gap Transportation, a company that helped loved ones connect to people in area prisons by shuttle service — a time in Bush’s life that she helped turn into an award-winning documentary.
Through these social impact brands and hosting live cannabis events, Bush wants to see policymakers bring legacy marijuana operators — the people who have sold cannabis for decades before it was legal — to the table when it comes to discussing legalization efforts.
“As we move toward cannabis legalization, we really gotta lower that cost to entry,” Bush said. “Whether that’s paying for the application fee, prioritizing the application of operators who’ve been directly impacted by the war on drugs, clearing [marijuana-related criminal offense] records, allowing operators to access banking to afford licensing fees. Really creating an industry that prioritizes correcting the harm that was done by the war on drugs.”
Ward agrees, and said that there is a cautionary tale to not transitioning legacy operators into the legal system, like in California where the underground market makes two times more money than the legal market.
“We’re almost in year seven since California adopted legalization and the regulated market there is having a very difficult time competing with the legacy market, and it’s largely because they didn’t have the foresight to try and transition those folks into a regulated scheme,” said Ward.
Pennsylvania can ‘cherry-pick; what worked for other states
“This is the other advantage Pennsylvania has — they are coming into the market and can look at 19 other states that have legalized marijuana and figure out what worked and what hasn’t,” Ward said.
When it comes to restorative justice, New Jersey decided to direct the revenue made from marijuana to communities that were disproportionally impacted by the war on drugs. In New Jersey, 87 out of the 565 total municipalities in the state are designated as “impact zones.” These are communities that have higher rates of unemployment, marijuana-related arrests, and more crime than other municipalities. As of 2021, New Jersey also expunges convictions for nonviolent, cannabis-related offenses.
When it comes to barriers to entry, Maine and Vermont have tiered licensing for marijuana cultivators or growers. This means cultivators aren’t required to get a one-size-fits-all license that is very expensive, which excludes many smaller operators from entering the legal cannabis industry. Instead, cultivators can apply for licenses at different levels, so smaller operators, can pay fees around $750 to $1,500 (in Vermont), rather than tens of thousands of dollars.
When it comes to transitioning legacy operators into the legal system, New Jersey prioritizes cannabis business license applications from operators whose businesses will be in impact zones and operators who have convictions for cannabis-related offenses.