Pennsylvania Lawmakers Delve Into Marijuana Legalization with Focus on Social Justice

Pennsylvania Lawmakers Delve Into Marijuana Legalization with Focus on Social Justice

Pennsylvania lawmakers held yet another hearing on marijuana legalization with the conversation this time centered on social justice and equity considerations for reform as the governor steps up his push to end cannabis prohibition.

Just days after Rep. Amen Brown (D) filed a new marijuana legalization bill that he described as “grounded in safety and social equity,” members of the House Health Subcommittee on Health Care took testimony from advocates and stakeholders about the broader reform—the latest in a series of meetings the panel has held on the issue in recent months.

Witnesses at Thursday’s meeting included representatives of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), Parabola Center, the Diasporic Alliance for Cannabis Opportunities, a Boston cannabis management official, a retired judge and others.

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“We know we have the opportunity to get this ready [and] to learn from others’ experience, so that’s why we’ve been taking a very deliberative process to draft this piece of legislation here,” Rep. Dan Frankel (D), chair of the full Health Committee, said.

“I think it is important that we deal with reality,” he said. “The reality is, we can either continue to have an illicit marketplace that doesn’t promote public health and that ignores the social justice issues or we can try and be prepared to put together a framework that promotes public safety, promotes social justice and promotes a revenue arrangement that benefits the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and its taxpayers.”

Laury Lucien, education director for the Parabola Center and a Massachusetts business owner, said during the hearing that “social equity is not charity.”

“Oftentimes, when we’re engaging in these conversations, we feel as if we’re engaging in charitable work. This is not what we’re doing. We’re doing what social equity is: restorative justice,” she said. “It’s reparative justice to repair the wrongs that were committed in the enforcement of these marijuana laws that disproportionately impacted certain communities and certain people.”

“We need to ensure that the criminal justice piece is addressed—that there is automatic expungement, that penalties are reduced and that folks who are on parole are not penalized for cannabis activities,” she added.

Lucien also stressed the need to cap licenses for individual business owners in order to mitigate the risk of monopolization.

“It can’t be a free-for-all where you can have unlimited licenses,” she said. “In Massachusetts, for example, you can only have three licenses in each category. That, as an equity applicant, gives me a lot of solace because it helps me to feel safer that one company is not going to monopolize the entire industry.”

Tahir Johnson, CEO of the New Jersey-based Simply Pure Trenton and the president of MCBA, walked committee members through his own experience standing up a cannabis business as a social equity licensee. He emphasized the need to ensure that equity applicants have a means of accessing capital, especially given financial services restrictions under federal prohibition.

“I was previously a financial advisor, and I saw where, especially for minorities, it is extremely difficult,” he said. “Due to not having access to traditional banking systems, you have to rely on venture capital, private equity, all those things. And every statistic tells you that women and minorities typically get less access to their money.”

William Garriot, a professor at Drake University, told lawmakers that “in a nutshell, social equity is about addressing the harms of previous policies.”

“Each state has done social equity a little bit differently, but they all tend to focus on three things: Expanding access to the legal cannabis market for people from disproportionately impacted communities, using tax revenue from legal cannabis sales to invest or reinvest in disproportionately impacted communities and eliminating the criminal records of those arrested on cannabis charges or convicted of cannabis,” he said.

The panel has held hearings several times recently to discuss cannabis issues. At a prior meeting last month, members focused on criminal justice implications of prohibition and the potential benefits of reform.

At another hearing in February, members looked at the industry perspective, with multiple stakeholders from cannabis growing, dispensing and testing businesses, as well as clinical registrants, testifying.

At the subcommittee’s previous cannabis meeting in December, members heard testimony and asked questions about various elements of marijuana oversight, including promoting social equity and business opportunities, laboratory testing and public versus private operation of a state-legal cannabis industry.

During the panel’s first meeting late last year, Frankel said that state-run stores are “certainly an option” he’s considering for Pennsylvania, similar to what New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) recommended for that state last year, though a state commission later shied away from that plan.

The cannabis proposal the Brown filed in the House this week is an identical companion to a bipartisan Senate cannabis legalization measure that was introduced last year.

While Pennsylvania lawmakers have put forward legalization bills in the past, it’s not clear what might serve as the vehicle for reform this year.

Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) once again proposed legalization as part of his budget request in February, seeking to establish a system that would be implemented starting this summer. But while he suggested certain parameters such as having the Department of Agriculture regulate the program, there’s not legislative text yet.

Last month, the Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) released a report that found the state stands to generate $271 million in annual revenue if marijuana is legalized and taxed according to the governor’s proposal—but it would have been more if the commonwealth hadn’t been lapped by other neighboring states that have already enacted the reform.

Meanwhile, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jordan Harris (D) said in a recent interview that it’s “high time” to legalize marijuana and lay the groundwork for businesses in the state to export cannabis to other markets if federal law changes—and he sees a “real opportunity” to do so.

However, the committee’s minority chairman, Rep. Seth Grove (R), said he’s doubtful that the Democratic-controlled House will be able to craft and deliver legalization legislation that could advance through the GOP majority Senate.

Pennsylvania lawmakers also recently advanced a pair of bills meant to prevent police from charging medical cannabis patients with impaired driving without proof of intoxication.

A Republican state senator also says he will soon introduce legislation that would remove barriers under state law to medical marijuana patients carrying firearms.

In December, the governor signed a bill to allow all licensed medical marijuana grower-processors in the state to serve as retailers and sell their cannabis products directly to patients. Independent dispensaries could also start cultivating their own marijuana.

A poll released in February found that about two-thirds of Pennsylvania voters in the state support enacting marijuana legalization.

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