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Recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania: What should legalization look like?

Written by Wallace McKelvey/PennLive | Apr 30, 2019 5:23 PM
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In this Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, photo, Carmen Fultz, an employee of Buckeye Relief LLC, sorts the male and female marijuana plants inside a Veg Room, in Eastlake, Ohio. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

Pennsylvania is getting ever closer to legal recreational marijuana but policymakers still face tough questions about what this potentially multi-billion-dollar industry would look like.

In December, Gov. Tom Wolf signaled he's open to it after years of ambivalence and caution. Newly elected Lt. Gov. John Fetterman subsequently embarked on a 67-county listening tour to collect public input.

Various proposals are circulating around Harrisburg including a pending bill from Democratic Sens. Daylin Leach and Sharif Street that would, among other things, allow consumption by anyone over 21 years old, allow private citizens to grow up to six plants for personal use and create a path toward expunging past criminal convictions.

There is, of course, no small amount of resistance to legalization. State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, who helps set the agenda for legislation making its way toward the governor's desk, called the idea "reckless and irresponsible" in December.

Similarly, a number of criminal justice and public health advocacy groups have spoken out against legalization. One factor is the lack of extensive research into the long-term effects of pot smoking, which itself is a result of marijuana's listing as a Schedule 1 controlled substance alongside drugs like ecstasy, heroin and LSD.

Fetterman, who's personally supported legalization in the past, was careful during a Democratic policy hearing to say that his listening tour wasn't designed to promote a specific end goal and that his beliefs aren't necessarily those of the Wolf administration.

"I don't speak for Gov. Wolf," the lieutenant governor said Monday. "But I know [he] believes it's critical to have this conversation."

Monday's hearing was stocked mostly with experts sympathetic toward decriminalizing pot, legalizing it for adults to use or both. But it still highlighted some key issues legislators will have to grapple with and internal differences between the various advocates and stakeholders.

Recreational by another word

Leach, Street and others have taken pains to reframe the issue from one about recreational to adult usage. It may seem like a minor point but the language used to describe a proposal can greatly change the public's perception of it. It's instructive to think about the words used to describe abortion rights: Are opponents "anti-abortion" or are they "pro-life"?

Roz McCarthy, founder of the advocacy group Minorities for Medical Marijuana, said using the word "recreational" to describe legalization efforts leads to resistance out of the misplaced fear that young people will immediately gain access to mind-altering drugs.

"Recreational [can mean] 'this is something for fun, this is something for children'," she said. "We need to call it what it is and it's adult use."

For McCarthy, though, it's not just a matter of semantics. Any legalization bill must include an educational component, she said, that teaches both adults and young people about their rights and responsibilities because legalization doesn't mean it's suddenly legal for people to consume marijuana anywhere and at any age.

"Teens aren't dummies. They see what's happening with medical marijuana," she said. "If we're not teaching them 'this is not for you, this is for adults,' we're doing an injustice to our children."

Who gets to sell marijuana?

From the moment Pennsylvania passed medical marijuana legislation in 2016, there was a rush of interest in the limited number of permits that would be awarded and overseen by the state Department of Health.

One clear component of this was the idea that a permit to sell medical marijuana immediately gave a company a leg up when cannabis was legalized for recreational use. It's a possibility brought up by several experts and lawmakers at Monday's hearing.

"Permittees already went through a very rigorous compliance process," said Corrine Ogrodnik, owner of the Pittsburgh-based Maitri Medicinals. "When you walk through our doors, you'll find an extremely professional, calm and secure place to be."

The argument here is that established medical marijuana growers and dispensaries have already worked through the kinks of production, distribution and security.

"It's important to recognize we don't need to reinvent the wheel," Ogrodnik said.

But it could also leave smaller, more rural and minority owned Pennsylvania-based growers at a disadvantage when this larger recreational industry launches.

"No small farmers have been able to get into medical marijuana," said Judy Wicks, a Philadelphia restauranteur who started a rural/urban agricultural partnership. "[We have to be] cautious in adult use that it not just be built on companies that already have licenses for medical."

'The Willy Wonka Effect'

Permitting tends to favor the wealthy and the well-positioned because they're more likely to have the resources to hire experts to make their case and to launch their operations quickly. It's no coincidence that many of the companies that received medical marijuana permits were out-of-state firms that have wealthy backers and experience in the industry.

McCarthy, who advocates for hiring diverse work forces and creating opportunities for minority permit holders, calls this "the Willy Wonka effect" after the Roald Dahl novel and its various film adaptations.

"Everyone's clamoring to get five golden tickets," she said, "The person with the most money gets those tickets."

This can be alleviated somewhat by carving up a state into many different permitting districts and requiring applicants to show their commitment to diverse hiring, both things Pennsylvania did with medical marijuana. But McCarthy said there hasn't been any compliance factor to ensure permit holders live up to their promises.

"If you have five companies not [being] held accountable from a participation standpoint, that skews the diversity ecosystem," she said.

Fetterman said another solution that's come up during his various stops across the state is to treat marijuana like alcohol: to sell it in state-run stores.

"Even those who don't support recreational use [say] that would allay some of their concern it'll be the wild, wild west so to speak," he said.

Given recent efforts by the legislative Republican majorities to dismantle the state liquor store system, that possibility seems like a political non-starter.

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Decriminalization and the illegal market

Legalization advocates often put forth two key arguments: First, that legal pot will undermine the illegal and sometimes violent black market for the drug. Second, it help alleviate some of the mass incarceration that went along with marijuana prohibition and the war on drugs more broadly.

But legalization alone won't necessarily achieve either of those goals.

Steve Reilly, general counsel for the Massachusetts-based marijuana firm INSA, said the best way to undermine the illegal market is for the legal alternatives to be less expensive. One way to do that, he said, is to tax the legal products at a low enough rate that they're cheap enough to convince users to buy from legal companies. His recommendation is a tax rate of 15 to 17 percent.

"Massachusetts' rate [20 percent in places that opt for a 3 percent local tax] is slightly high," he said. "You end up with products more costly than the illegal market, which allows that illegal market to continue."

The other component is decriminalization, which most often means reduced or eliminated consequences for nonviolent marijuana-related crimes. It can also mean creating a system for expunging past marijuana convictions, something that can help ex-offenders get jobs and move on with their lives.

Fetterman said Monday the vast majority of people he's encountered on his listening tour support decriminalization-even those who don't necessarily support legalizing recreational marijuana.

"They don't want to see anyone's lives damaged further for past [convictions]," he said. "We need to free people from that kind of damage."

Peppers, tomatoes and pot

Medical marijuana expanded access across the state but, as Fetterman pointed out Monday, only for those with the financial wherewithal to shell out hundreds of dollars to see a certified doctor and obtain a card and then hundreds more per month for the actual medication.

Why?

Federal law means there's no insurance coverage.

One possible solution, which of course is incumbent upon full legalization, is to allow for the cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Leach and Street's proposal, for example, would allow individuals to grow up to six plants.

The idea of growing marijuana at home appeals to a lot of conservatives Fetterman has met on the road.

"[They say,] 'I don't want my tax dollars spent going after folks with a few joints'," he said. "'If I can grow peppers and tomatoes in my back yard, I should be able to grow a few cannabis plants, as well'."

 

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

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