| Erie Times-News
Laughlin, Street unveil marijuana legalization bill
State Sens. Dan Laughlin, left, and Sharif Street introduce a bill to legalize marijuana at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex on Feb. 24, 2021.
As state Sens. Dan Laughlin and Sharif Street introduced the commonwealth’s first bipartisan bill to legalize recreational marijuana Wednesday, Laughlin, the Erie County Republican, admitted that his position on the issue had changed “180 degrees” since taking office in 2017.
“The final straw was a conversation that I had with one of my kids,” said Laughlin, of Millcreek Township, R-49th Dist., the first Republican in the General Assembly to cosponsor a marijuana legalization bill. “He told me that he could have a bag of weed delivered to the house in under an hour and that’s better service than Amazon. And I realized that anyone in Pennsylvania that wants to smoke marijuana is probably already doing it. So we might as well take this and regulate it. That, I think, is the most responsible thing that we can do.”
If the efforts of Democrats like Street, of Philadelphia, D-3rd Dist., Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman to legalize marijuana for recreational use, they’ll need more Republicans to come around on the issue the way Laughlin has.
Laughlin thinks he has a compelling case to make to the GOP.
“I actually believe that this is one of the most fiscally conservative things that I’ve gotten to work on so far. You know, the Republican Party stands for less government, more freedom, and I don’t know what would be more free than this.”
More: Laughlin sponsors marijuana legalization bill for adults 21 and older
With the exception of its most controversial provision — the legalization of marijuana for recreational use for adults 21 and older — the bipartisan bill offers a range of benefits that would appeal to both Democrats and Republicans, Laughlin and Street said.
Here are a few key benefits:
- Generate between $400 million and $1 billion annually for the state, according to the Independent Fiscal Office.
- Create a new business sector, especially benefitting struggling family farms and minority communities disproportionately affected by poverty and marijuana-related arrests and convictions. The bill would establish a grant program for the latter.
- Give thousands of people an opportunity to have their criminal records for nonviolent marijuana convictions expunged or sealed, potentially affording them a dose of economic mobility by removing a barrier to the workforce.
- Reduce a strain on law enforcement and the criminal justice system, while also forcing the black market for marijuana out of business.
- Give people who have medical marijuana cards for a qualifying health condition but who cannot afford the products sold at state-regulated dispensaries a way to grow at home.
- The bill also has some of the toughest regulations aimed at keeping the drug out of the hands of children and young adults, Laughlin and Street say.
- Allow Pennsylvania to keep pace with neighboring states, including New Jersey and likely New York, which have legalized or are in the process of legalizing recreational marijuana, respectively.
More: NJ marijuana legalization is official: Gov. Phil Murphy signs legal weed into law
“I ran for public office because I wanted to solve problems,” Laughlin said Wednesday when he and Street introduced the bill.” And you can only solve problems when you are honest about what people think and how people really feel. It’s clear to me that public attitudes towards marijuana have changed dramatically in the past decade — maybe more than any other issue in recent memory.
“Nearly two thirds of Pennsylvanians support adult-use marijuana legalization,” he continued. “The majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents support adult-use marijuana legalization. A majority of each region of the commonwealth supports adult-use marijuana legalization. Fifteen states have fully legalized marijuana and nearly every state has some type of marijuana program.”
Read the bill:
Economic opportunity, social equity
Eric Titus White, a 37-year-old hemp farmer from Monroe County, is among those advocating for legalization.
Titus White bought a 43-acre farm near East Stroudsburg in the Poconos in 2019, after the federal lawmakers legalized hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill. Today, his business, The Hempstead at Mountain Dale Farm, produces an array of hemp products, from CBD hemp, to fiber hemp for industrial uses, and hemp seed for building construction.
Hemp is a strain of cannabis with very low levels of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.
Titus White would begin farming marijuana if given the chance.
“The fact that it’s taken this long is a shame,” he said, “especially in the current state of things in the United States and the world. Financially we know that the states are going to be looking to recoup some of the money that they’re spending now in this pandemic. That’s certainly not the reason why this plant should be legal, but however we need to get there … I do think it’s inevitable. I think it’s going to be something that people look back on and can’t even imagine that we had to fight so hard for.”
Titus White is also the interim executive director of All Together Now PA, a network of independent, locally-owned farms and businesses from urban and rural communities that aims to increase community wealth and equality, reduce reliance on global supply chains and protect the environment.
“Part of the bill in moving forward will allow for not just specifically white men to grow a profitable plant and sell it when there are incredible farmers — both white and minority — that actually should be given first chance to grow this plant and make some money. We know that certain farmers get the short end of the stick.”
The bill would enable small family farms to start what it calls micro-cultivation centers, where marijuana could be harvested in a secure, controlled environment. It also would establish a Social and Equity Program to give aspiring entrepreneurs who live in poor areas adversely impacted by marijuana arrests and convictions low-interest loans and grants to establish cultivation centers and dispensaries.
“This is going to open up economic opportunity for so many citizens,” Street said during Wednesday’s news conference, “but moreover, we have farmers that are struggling and to deny them the opportunity to get into the cannabis field when our neighboring states are moving forward with recreational adult legalization would be unfortunate and it would be a lost opportunity.”
At the same time, the bill would open up economic opportunities for people whose prior convictions have served as a barrier.
“We know that people of all races and backgrounds and economic classes use cannabis,” Street said. “It’s a running joke around corporate spaces and law firms I worked at about … silly things that happened by my corporate colleagues when they were using cannabis, but most of those folks never talk about what it would be like to be prosecuted.”
Last year, an American Civil Liberties Union report found that Black people in Pennsylvania were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and that such disparities existed in 56 of the commonwealth’s 67 counties. The disparities in some of those counties were higher than the national average.
In Erie County, Laughlin’s home turf, Black people are 2½ times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. In the neighboring counties the rate of disparity was much higher. In Crawford, blacks were 8.1 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In Venango, the rate was 10½ times higher for blacks.
Several cities have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, York, State College, Lancaster, Bethlehem, Upper Darby Township and Erie.
More: Erie City Council OK’s reduced marijuana possession penalties
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Friday that in 2019 the number of arrests statewide for marijuana possession dropped 11% from the record year of 2018. However, the report noted that despite those efforts to decriminalize possession in several cities there were still more arrests in 2019 than there were a decade earlier.
Erie City Council in 2018 made possession of 30 grams of less of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia, summary offenses rather than misdemeanors under certain conditions.
The change was proposed by then-Councilman Bob Merski, who is now serving his second term representing the 2nd Legislative District as a Democrat in the Pennsylvania House. Merski and fellow Democratic state Reps. Ryan Bizzarro and Patrick Harkins have already expressed support for marijuana legalization.
Jill Beck, the community engagement coordinator for Rise Erie, which now has two medical marijuana dispensaries in Erie, believes that adult-use marijuana legalization could benefit the state’s medical-marijuana program and individuals who want an alternative form of medicine to treat a range of ailments.
Beck has been working with employers for the better part of three years to increase the acceptance of medical-marijuana patients, who might be flagged during a drug test for having THC in their systems, into the workforce.
“There’s a movement across the country to give people choices on how they — I’m going to say — medicate,” Beck said. “There’s a shift from utilizing alcohol to utilizing marijuana. Definitely, there are medical benefits and I’m personally very medically minded and want to see that (adult-use) program move forward. We’ve had patients who’ve come in using a walker and then 30, 60 or 90 days later the walker isn’t part of their everyday routine any longer. So there are definitely benefits to maintaining the medical status even should this come to fruition.”
Rise Erie’s parent company, Green Thumb Industries, has 52 dispensaries nationwide, the largest being its new Peach Street location. Beck said the company would likely expand to adult-use marijuana if it’s legalized.
The benefit of such dispensaries, she said, is that consumers can feel confident that the products they’re buying have been tested and don’t include harmful, unknown substances that marijuana sold on the street might contain.
Even a provision in the Laughlin-Street bill that would allow medical cardholders to grow up to five marijuana plants in excess of 5 inches tall wouldn’t pose a problem for medical dispensaries like Rise Erie, Beck said.
“I don’t think that will impact us,” she said, “and we certainly encourage that. … There’s definitely room for everyone in this industry and in this market.”
‘Inevitable’ not immediate
Laughlin’s backing earned praise from his Democratic colleagues, namely the bill’s cosponsor, Street, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a 2022 U.S. Senate candidate who is perhaps the biggest proponent of marijuana legalization in the state.
“I want to thank Senator Laughlin,” Street said Wednesday. “I want to thank him for his rather thoughtful support for cannabis legalization. I thank him because, quite frankly, it took a measure of courage to step out and do what people knew was right to support this bill, which is pragmatic both economically and socially.”
Fetterman, who toured all 67 counties in 2019 to hold public forums on legalization, also praised the senator, who’s now in his second term.
More: Majority at Erie forum support legalizing marijuana
“Let me be the first to applaud and thank you Senator Laughlin for having the courage to do that,” Fetterman told the Erie Times-News Thursday. “Honestly, in these divided times, you’ve got to just call that what it is, you know. It’s credit where credit is due as far as I’m concerned.”
As of Friday morning, the infant piece of legislation had seven cosponsors, but none of them is Republican.
Still, Fetterman said, Laughlin’s backing could shift the conversation on recreational marijuana the way Republican support of the state’s medical-marijuana program did.
“It’s impossible to overstate that,” Fetterman said. “If you study the path of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, it was a Republican senator that was like, ‘Hey, you know what? We really do need to talk about this. We really need to have this conversation.’ And it stops becoming a Democrat issue. And it starts becoming what I’ve always said it was, a Pennsylvania bipartisan issue. And that’s only been my point. I know, sure, more Democrats than Republicans want this, but at the end of the day, a majority of Republicans want this, too.”
More: Listen: Fetterman talks legal weed, Laughlin support with the Erie Times-News
Despite Laughlin’s support, there appears to be no imminent appetite for adult-use marijuana legalization among the GOP.
Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, of Bellefonte, R-171st Dist. said in a statement that Benninghoff “has repeatedly been on record voicing his opposition to the legalization of marijuana.
“In short, it is simply incongruent with our times to be having this discussion,” Gottesman said. “Right now Pennsylvania is in the middle of an opioid epidemic, which the governor has renewed a disaster declaration for over a dozen times. Given that, the legalization of a different illegal substance does not make sense. Also, Pennsylvania is also on the heels of legalizing medicinal marijuana, part of which was to include studying and observing the impacts of that major undertaking.”
Another view: More states have legalized recreational weed. Here’s why Pa. is unlikely to join them
Fetterman balked when asked if legalizing marijuana amid an opioid epidemic was a concern and whether recreational usage could serve as a gateway to more illicit drugs, like opioids.
“It is a gateway drug,” he said. “It’s a gateway drug away from opioids. So many people go to opioids for pain, and (with marijuana legalization) they would have an option to make it accessible and easy to consume.
“It’s not addictive. That’s just the ‘reefer madness.’ It’s illogical, and they know it is. I would confront this caucus, and I would say, ‘South Dakota voted for this. South Dakota, your most conservative state in the nation voted to legalize weed. What the hell is wrong with you?'”
Contact Matthew Rink at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @ETNrink.