Is this the year that Pa. finally legalizes recreational marijuana? | Mark O’Keefe

After years of trying, the political clouds may be parting. But there are still obstacles

February 19, 2023 6:30 am

State Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, speaks at a press conference announcing a bill to legalize marijuana with Democratic state Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, on Feb. 24, 2021. (Courtesy of Senate Democrats)

Is Pennsylvania on the verge of making marijuana legal?

While there hasn’t been much talk about the topic recently, legalization took a huge step forward with Democrats winning three recent primaries to take a 102-101 edge in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. With control of the chamber, Democrats can now decide which bills can come up for votes and when they can be voted on.

Democrats had tried for years to get their Republican counterparts to consider legalization, but GOP lawmakers refused to even discuss the proposal much less take an actual vote on the topic.

However, with Democrats in charge of the agenda, it’s possible they could agree to discuss the proposal and possibly even pass it.

If the legislation passes the House of Representatives, it could eventually end up in the governor’s office. Democratic Gov.  Josh Shapiro has said he supports legalization .

Before that can happen, though, the legislation would have to be passed by the state Senate where Republicans hold the majority.

But two Republican senators, Mike Regan, of York County and Dan Laughlin, of Erie, have come out in favor of legalization, meaning it could pass the Senate if Democrats stand firm and one more Republican favors legalization.

Regan noted that his support for the legislation may have surprised some given his two decades in law enforcement.
However, he said there are estimates that legalization could bring $1 billion in revenues which could be used to provide police with much-needed manpower and training to help their beleaguered departments.

“It is important to recognize that legalization of adult-use marijuana in Pennsylvania is inevitable,” said Regan. “I am stepping up to be a leader on the issue, as I did on medical marijuana. And I am doing so using a common-sense, bipartisan, bicameral approach that will provide Pennsylvanians access to a safe product, create thousands of jobs, level the playing field with neighboring states, support law enforcement and our communities, and more importantly, defund the deadly drug cartels who have wreaked so much havoc on the Commonwealth and our country for so many years.”

He pointed out that 36 states across the country have established medical marijuana programs and 18 of them, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized adult-use marijuana.

“Two of our neighboring states, New Jersey and New York, are among them. We will soon experience border bleed with Pennsylvanians contributing to the tax base of those states and helping to pay for their roads and bridges, while the Commonwealth deals with the implications of purchases brought across state lines without the revenue or resources in our legal system to address them.”

Laughlin co-sponsored the Adult Use Cannabis and Economic Recovery bill in 2021 with state Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat from Philadelphia.

He said the proposed revenue increases are not the major reason he favors legalization.

“I know there are many people who believe this will be a large revenue stream, but that’s at the very bottom of my list of reasons to introduce this bill,” said Laughlin.

“This is where we are as a country. The majority of people want this legalized and regulated,” he added.

Recent polls have shown that roughly two-thirds of  of Pennsylvanians favor legalization.

“I view this as the most responsible approach,” added Laughlin. “We’ve already legalized medical marijuana and regulating adult use takes a huge bite out of the black market. It also allows people that already use this product to  buy it from a safe source with accurate labeling.”

That bill was blocked by Republicans and never came up for a vote.

Any move on legalization will have to wait for a resolution to the impasse over the controversial issue of providing relief to victims of childhood sexual abuse.

House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, plans to call votes on both a standalone version of the survivors’ amendment and a bill to enact a law creating a two-year exception to the statute of limitations that bars many adult abuse survivors from suing.

Senate Republicans have vowed to block the measure as a standalone amendment, contending it should be approved with other constitutional amendments Some of those amendments are opposed by Democrats, creating the impasse.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear how long Rozzi will serve as the House Speaker. He was proposed as a compromise candidate but since Democrats now control the chamber they could back someone such as Joanna McClinton, the leader of the House Democrats.

However, all Democrats would have to support McClinton, including Rozzi.

Whatever happens, the legalization of marijuana will remain on the table. Despite deep differences over most issues, this is one issue that both parties may be able to reach a compromise on.

And it’s something that could happen now, not years from now.

Of course, since we’re talking about the Pennsylvania Legislature and all sorts of mischief and mayhem could happen to prevent legalization. Democrats could split on the topic and a third Republican senator favoring legalization may never be found.
But there’s no doubt that the Pennsylvania Legislature is closer to making marijuana legal than ever before in its history. 

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Mark O'Keefe
Mark O'Keefe

Opinion contributor Mark O'Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page.