Cannabis legalization may be off the table for Pennsylvania’s GOP majority. Decriminalization is another matter

By: - October 17, 2019 7:29 am

A patriotic marijuana leaf has spent the last month picking social media fights with the Republicans who control the General Assembly.

The Twitter account — whose avatar is a star-spangled cannabis plant — has pushed to “end the stigma” around cannabis use, retweeted Democrats, and issued stern warnings to powerful GOP lawmakers skeptical of legalization, including House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

But most surprising is the account’s name: “PA Republicans for Legalization.”

The account is run by Joseph Drum, a 35-year-old health care professional from Montgomery County. 

Although he leans to the libertarian side of the party, Drum told the Capital-Star he’s a member of the GOP because he supports “the principles of liberty, limited government, [and] low taxes.”

“And the prohibition of marijuana is the antithesis of all of that,” Drum added. To him, it’s a “classic example” of government overreach.

In late September, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, long skeptical of legalization, came out in favor of recreational cannabis, and called on the Republican majorities in the state House and Senate to seriously discuss the idea. 

The House GOP immediately slammed the brakes.

“Calling on the Legislature to act now on marijuana legalization serves only as a distraction from the important work lawmakers carry out in Harrisburg and in their home districts,” a statement attributed to the “House Republican Leadership team” read.

As legal pot efforts take hold across the country, opponents organize in Pennsylvania

But back in some of those home districts, polling suggests support for the idea is rising. 

In Pennsylvania, a March 2019 poll by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster found 59 percent support among registered voters, with 39 percent of Republicans backing the idea.

The less rigorous 67-county listening tour undertaken by Democratic Lt. Gov John Fetterman earlier this year also concluded that “a significant majority” of Pennsylvanians support legalization.

National polling by Gallup has shown more Republicans are embracing the idea. An October 2018 poll showed 53 percent support among members of the GOP. 

Drum doesn’t look kindly at his own party’s refusal to even consider legalization.

“The Republicans denouncing it are denouncing our whole democratic process,” he said.


‘Not so fast!’

Republican opposition to legalization has held firm — and was buoyed by a poll released Oct. 8 by Susquehanna Polling and Research that showed 49 percent of Pennsylvania registered voters opposed legalization.

“Not so fast!” Turzai tweeted at Wolf and Fetterman, citing the poll. He also released a statement listing news articles that raised “significant concerns” about legalization.

The stories highlighted the threat of teenagers smoking more powerful weed. They also cited reporting from Alex Berenson, a journalist whose book linking marijuana use to psychosis has come under scrutiny.

Some Republicans have also taken to conducting their own straw polls via social media of opinions on marijuana legalization. Results have varied.

But at least one measure could still attract Republican support, especially among lawmakers in the oft-cantankerous House — decriminalization, an idea that has “almost unanimous support,” according to Fetterman.  

A bill making marijuana possession a summary offense — punishable by a fine, rather than by jail time and a record — received a vote in late 2018 and is still viewed as the starting point for the GOP majority.

Rep. Barry Jozwiak, R-Berks, a former state trooper and sheriff, has introduced legislation to take marijuana possession cases out of county Courts of Common Pleas and down to lower levels of the justice system.

Jozwiak said it costs $40 million a year to prosecute marijuana possession cases statewide, while the fines equal just $2 million in revenue.

Under current law, possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by 30 days of jail time and a $500 fine. 

Jozwiak’s bill would limit the fine to a maximum of $300 with no jail time. And as a summary offense, there wouldn’t be a jury trial — it would be treated the same as a speeding ticket or disorderly conduct. 

A judge would have discretion to decide the case, and the incident wouldn’t show up on a background check.

While the justice system doesn’t work for a profit, Jozwiak said the net drain on law enforcement resources doesn’t strike him as right.

“Everyone gets nervous when they hear about it, ‘We’re changing the level, well we’re soft on crime,’” Jozwiak told the Capital-Star. “It’s still a violation … It’s just not tying up the courts and saving $38 million.”

He added that his district is “pretty conservative,” but “when they start hearing the tax implications … it all makes sense.”

Late last year, Jozwiak’s bill was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee 20-4, with four conservative Republicans voting no. But the bill never made it to the House floor before last session ended. 

Jozwiak said he’s informally polled other members of the powerful committee and believes his bill would also pass this session.

Patrick Nightingale, a Pittsburgh attorney and executive director of the city’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that decriminalization is a necessary step forward for Pennsylvania.

Right now, 20,000 Pennsylvanians enter the criminal justice system every year solely for marijuana possession, Nightingale said. Even if the arrests don’t end in jail time, individuals’ records are still marred and judges’ time is wasted on cases over a few joints.

Because agreement on legalization is still scarce — not only if it should be done, but how to implement it — the least Pennsylvania can do is limit the penalties for marijuana possession, Nightingale said.

“[Marijuana possession is] not something that is causing serious issues on the street,” he said. “It’s not something causing legions of victims.”

But he does have one concern with Jozwiak’s bill: It only reduces charges for the first two possession incidents. If an individual is caught a third time, the charge becomes more serious than Pennsylvania’s current punishment. 

A person caught a third time would be charged with a misdemeanor, like today. The individual would not be eligible for jail time, but the maximum fine would increase to $1,000.

“I appreciate that the representative is taking those issues seriously,” Nightingale said. “If this is the only option … I would be inclined to support it.”

State versus constituency

Drum’s Twitter account isn’t part of a formal organization yet. 

The Republican said it’s the outgrowth of a private Facebook community of like-minded individuals. 

Looking at changes across the country in marijuana policy, Drum and his fellow cannabis supporters want Pennsylvania’s GOP to match a love of liberty on taxes and regulations with loosening prohibitions on weed.

Other GOP lawmakers aren’t ready to do that quite yet. 

Rep. John Hershey, R-Juniata, said he doubts Fetterman’s finding that a majority of counties back legalization. Most of the constituents who call the office of his central Pennsylvania district, which includes parts of Mifflin and Franklin counties, are opposed to legalization.

He recognizes that constituents’ calls are “about as scientific” as Fetterman’s tour. But until he hears a change in tone, he’s a no on legalization.

Decriminalization is different, however. Hershey hasn’t yet heard anything in those same calls to suggest his constituents oppose rethinking penalties for marijuana possession.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 26 states and Washington, D.C. have already decriminalized marijuana to varying degrees. Their ranks include red states such as Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Mississippi.

Wolf and Fetterman have already started to take action to help those who have a marijuana possession conviction on their record. Fetterman recently encouraged such individuals to apply for an expedited pardon through a state board he chairs.

“I think most Pennsylvanians can get behind [decriminalization]. There are people whose records are tarnished for the rest of their lives for a small summary offense,” Hershey told the Capital-Star. “That seems cruel.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.