Could the time be right for legal marijuana in Pennsylvania?

STATE REP. ED GAINEY speaks during a forum at the Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg, July 17. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

Late last month when state Rep. Ed Gainey hosted a forum on legalizing recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania, several war veterans who had sustained combat injuries spoke about cannabis’ medical benefits—pain reduction, fewer issues related to PTSD, less anger.
But those problems can already be addressed via the state’s legalization of medical marijuana. There are 65 dispensaries for medical marijuana products, which cannot contain psychoactive ingredients. And the medical program isn’t even fully rolled out—the state plans for a total of 79 dispensaries, and there are several research arrangements with major hospitals still in the pipeline.
So, why the sudden push for recreational weed now?
Rep. Gainey said there are a myriad of reasons for legalizing recreational weed—but the biggest human reason is that the prosecution of those with illegal marijuana has destroyed thousands of lives—mostly Black lives, wasted billions of dollars, and hasn’t improved anything.
“If you can show me a time in American history where no one got high, I’d be against it,” Rep. Gainey said. “And continuing to put people in jail for this is unacceptable. We know that Blacks, Whites and Latinos all use at the same rate—but African Americans are jailed for it at four times the rate of Whites. We’ve taken Black men and women away from their children with mandatory minimum sentences and sent them home with a felony record, so they can’t get jobs or housing. This has done nothing but hurt humanity.”
Then there’s also an economic argument for legalization. State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in a 2018 report that the state could reel in $580 million in taxes on recreational marijuana. Rep. Gainey said that’s a conservative estimate because it’s based on revenues in Colorado—the first state to legalize recreational marijuana.
“We have a higher population than Colorado and based on the demand we’ve seen from medical marijuana—the return should be higher,” he said. “That’s new money—a new revenue stream for rehab, recovery, education and jobs. Not to mention, we’d be saving between $100 million and $200 million in the court system through decriminalization alone.”
For state Rep. Jake Wheatley, the push isn’t sudden, either. He introduced legislation to decriminalize marijuana a year ago. It never made it to the floor for a vote, but he has reintroduced it in the new legislative session. His HB 50 amends the 2016 law legalizing medical marijuana, and in addition to decriminalizing marijuana for adult use, would expunge the records of those previously charged with marijuana possession, release anyone who is in jail solely for such charges, and return licenses to those who lost them because of those charges.
The bill faces an uphill battle as several Republicans, including House Speaker Mike Turzai, have come out against it.
That is one of the reasons Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who attended Rep. Gainey’s Jan. 26 forum at the Carnegie Library’s Homewood Branch and who supports the change, is currently touring all 67 Pennsylvania counties on a listening tour to get feedback—for and against—legalizing recreational marijuana.
“At the end of this, we’re going to have a document that summarizes everyone’s opinions,” Fetterman told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “Last night in Washington, Pa., by a show of hands it was about 97 percent for and three percent against. The other day in Warren it was about 65-35. We’re also going to pull out the top 10 reasons for and the top 10 against. You know what’s refreshing, I’ve heard only reasonable concerns—on both sides. Everyone has been respectful. That’s encouraging.”
Those unable to attend any of the tour stops can submit feedback on the issue here.
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