The Status of Recreational Marijuana
Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana use in 2016. Now, the state is looking to legalize recreational marijuana. Several lawmakers oppose this move, and there is little information on the effectiveness of medical marijuana in the state.
If passed, this would add Pennsylvania to the growing list of states decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana for adults over the age of 21.
Although cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, 11 states have passed laws allowing for the growth, sale, and possession of recreational cannabis. There are 33 states that have passed medical marijuana laws.
Surveys have found that over half of Pennsylvania residents support legalizing recreational cannabis, but the state still has to work out how the industry would receive certification, how much people can carry on their person, and how to dispense this drug. Some Pennsylvanians do not want to pass this legislation.
Lawmakers and Residents Support Recreational Marijuana in Pennsylvania
Between February and May 2019, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman went on a statewide listening tour through all 67 counties. He found that 65 percent of those he spoke with supported legalizing recreational marijuana.
Around the same time, Representative Jake Wheatley, along with 26 cosponsors, introduced House Bill 50, to remove cannabis criminalization laws from the state. This new bill proposes:
- A tiered license system for marijuana growers.
- Lower financial barriers of entry for smaller business owners.
- Automatic expungement of criminal history involving cannabis charges.
- Decriminalization of possession and delivery of less than one ounce of cannabis.
- Commuting sentences from those convictions.
- The ability to grow up to six plants for personal use only.
Much of the popularity of recreational marijuana comes from medical marijuana’s success. While the state passed legislation in 2016 with Act 16, medical marijuana operations officially opened in February 2018.
Pennsylvania is still opening medical marijuana dispensaries, with about 50 currently operational and dozens more anticipated to open soon. The state is one of the largest medical marijuana markets in the United States.
As of May 2018, the Health Department further revised the medical cannabis program, allowing patients to have access to cannabis flowers. They also expanded on qualifying medical conditions, including using marijuana as a substitute therapy to treat opioid addiction, like methadone and buprenorphine are used now. These changes were recommended by the Medical Marijuana Advisory Board.
Since legalized medical marijuana has been successful in Pennsylvania, many people support ongoing efforts to end cannabis prohibition. Part of the push to end prohibition includes allowing private citizens to grow up to six plants for personal use, allowing people 21 and older to use cannabis, and expunging past criminal convictions for marijuana possession.
Lawmakers believe that many medical marijuana dispensaries have already figured out the best process for manufacturing and selling the drug. The state has a strict compliance process that these dispensaries must go through, so lawmakers can use that as a template for future changes in cannabis legislation.
The state has made some steps in this direction anyway. In October 2018, the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee approved a bill to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession to a fine rather than time in jail.
Criminal drug laws have been shown to disproportionately harm low-income individuals and people of color.
Cities throughout Pennsylvania have also been reducing their marijuana criminal penalties. As of March 2019, the following cities have stopped jailing individuals for cannabis possession:
- State College
If the drug is legalized for recreational use, the state of Pennsylvania (like other states that have legalized a marijuana industry) stands to make $581 million in tax revenue per year — a benefit to all Pennsylvania residents.
Policy Experts and Several Lawmakers Oppose Recreational Marijuana in Pennsylvania
Many people still opposite legalization, including Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, who called the idea “reckless and irresponsible.” Senator Corman, along with other public health and criminal justice advocacy groups, cite a lack of research into the effects of marijuana as a long-term recreational substance.
Cannabis is known to be an addictive substance. Many people are concerned about the effects of more widespread use of marijuana.
Minorities for Medical Marijuana founder Roz McCarthy said that using the word recreational leads to resistance because people are afraid that adolescents will have access to mind-altering drugs. However, much of the emphasis of the legislation is, like alcohol laws, for adults to have access to the substance. Many of the laws do as much as possible to stop anyone younger than 21 years old from getting this mind-altering substance.
Some policymakers believe that legalizing marijuana will not improve problems with illegal activity related to the drug. Minors acquire alcohol illegally, for example, and this is hard to control. Without harsh penalties for drug possession or abuse, it will be harder to show that cannabis is addictive and dangerous.
With the medical marijuana industry already growing so large, small farmers believe that there will be no room for them to compete in the new marketplace. Although legislators are looking at a high tax rate (15 to 17 percent for state-approved companies), this may prohibit smaller groups from even starting the business.
While discussions about expunging criminal records are underway, the prohibitive costs still benefit upper-income individuals who want to start businesses or purchase recreational marijuana. Because insurance cannot legally cover medical marijuana, wealthier individuals have had the most access to this substance.
Representative John Hershey reported that he conducted his own poll on the popularity of recreational marijuana and found that 80 percent of people he surveyed were opposed to passing laws legalizing cannabis. Other lawmakers are pushing back against the tax revenue benefits of passing recreational marijuana laws, believing that it is more harmful than good for the state to use an addictive substance to make money.
Pennsylvania Continues to Gather Data on Recreational Marijuana
Fetterman has been careful to state that he does not support a specific end goal but is exploring what Pennsylvanians wants for future marijuana laws.
Much of the U.S. is passing medical and recreational cannabis laws, so Pennsylvania lawmakers have some precedent to draw on for successful industries and regulatory laws. Just over half of the state supports the legislation. This may not be enough to actually pass the laws or support efforts to build the industry.
Since the medical marijuana industry has only begun in Pennsylvania, it could be some years before the state passes any further laws. With marijuana use still being illegal at the federal level, residents of Pennsylvania may put themselves in a risky position for potential employment or traveling to other states or countries.
Even if recreational marijuana passes in Pennsylvania, this drug is addictive, just like alcohol. There are long-lasting side effects on mood and physical health associated with drug abuse. Residents will have to weigh the potential harm of legalization against the benefits.
Pennsylvania Legalization Debate Heats Up! (June 2019). Marijuana Policy Project.
Legalization of Recreational Marijuana: Submit Your Feedback. Governor Tom Wolf, Office of the Governor Website.
Two Philly-Area State Senators to Introduce Bill Legalizing Recreational Marijuana. (March 2019). PhillyMag.com.
Recreational Marijuana in Pennsylvania: What Should Legalization Look Like? (April 2019). PennLive.com.
Legalizing Recreational Marijuana in Pennsylvania Still Unclear. (May 2019). Herald Mail Media.