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Senators from two parties introducing bill to legalize recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania

The Senators introduced, "a bipartisan approach to adult-use marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania."

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Two state senators from both sides of the aisle will introduce legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania, according to a memo published Wednesday on the Pennsylvania State Senate website.

Sen. Daniel Laughlin (R-Erie) will join Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) in introducing "a bipartisan approach to adult use marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania," the Senate memo said.

"Adult use of marijuana is supported by two-thirds of Pennsylvanians and has majority support in rural, suburban, and urban legislative districts," the memo states. "This bipartisan approach is grounded in safety and social equity."

According to the memo describing the legislation, the bill would set the minimum age for legal consumption of recreational marijuana at 21, and would also "provide the appropriate deterrence to keep marijuana out of the hands of anyone under age 21," the co-sponsors said in the memo.

The bill would also decriminalize marijuana "up to a certain limit as has been championed in a bipartisan fashion" and would expunge non-violent marijuana convictions, both for medical marijuana patients and other non-violent offenders, the senators said. 

Such a move also has bipartisan support, according to the bill's co-sponsors.

The legislation would also provide the appropriate deterrence to keep marijuana out of the hands of anyone under age 21, give law enforcement the means to adjudicate driving under the influence, and provide police with the authority to "pursue and eradicate any illicit market," the sponsors said in the memo.

State Democrats have long supported legalization and Gov. Tom Wolf made the issue a priority in his 2021 budget address.

State Republicans, State Sen. Laughlin included, have opposed it. 

Laughlin changed his mind, he said, because he believes a more open market is a decidedly Republican value.

"Republican government stands for less government and more freedom, and I don’t know what would be more free than this," Laughlin said.

The bill would also ban any marketing of recreational marijuana directed at children and provide workplace requirements regarding marijuana use for those operating in good faith, the senators said.

The legislation would also address social equality by granting licenses to social and economic equity applicants while providing room for new and existing licensees to ensure demand in Pennsylvania is met.

"This is the morally right thing to do, this is the libertarian free market thing to do, this is the economically responsible thing to do. The time is right to move forward with cannabis legalization," State Sen. Street said.

Farmers and craft crowers across the commonwealth would be able to "engage in the cultivation of marijuana in a manner that is safe and regulated" under the terms of the proposal, its co-sponsors said.

Laughlin and Street point to recent legislation passed in New Jersey that legalized adult use of marijuana, and noted that legislation in New York appears likely to pass in the future.

"It is our duty to taxpayers to seize the initiative and legalize marijuana concurrently with bordering states," the senators said. "Failure to do so risks permanently ceding hundreds of millions of dollars of new tax revenue as well as thousands of jobs at a time when taxpayers can least afford it."

In February 2021 Appropriations hearings, the senators noted, the Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office projected the legalization of marijuana for adult use will generate $400 million to $1 billion in new tax revenue for the Commonwealth.

Laughlin and Street called for the fellow senators to join them "in co-sponsoring a bipartisan and regulated approach to the legalization of adult use marijuana," the memo concludes.

Laughlin, who serves Senate District 49 in Erie County, serves as chair of the Pennsylvania Game and Fisheries Committee, vice-chair of the Banking & Insurance Committee, and is a member of the Appropriations, Community, Economic, & Recreational Development, Law & Justice, and State Government committees. A former construction company owner, he was elected to the State Senate in 2016.

Street, who serves the Senate District 3 in Philadelphia County, is minority chair of the Banking & Insurance and State Government committees, and also serves as a member of the Agricultural & Rural Affairs, Appropriations, and Local Government committees. He has served on the State Senate since his election in 2016. The son of former Philadelphia Mayor John Street, he is a supporter of criminal justice reform, environmentally-friendly energy production, cannabis legalization and equity education finance.

Street has called for the legalization of recreational marijuana before. In 2020, he joined fellow Democratic Sen. Daylin Leach in introducing Senate Bill 350, which is considered the "gold standard" for the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state. 

State Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Pittsburgh) introduced similar legislation in the House. 

Neither bill came up for a committee vote.

“While my colleague Senator Street and I come from different political parties, we see a bipartisan way forward on marijuana legalization that is premised on safety and social equity,” said Laughlin in a press release Wednesday afternoon. “As the marijuana movement reaches Pennsylvania, legalization must be done the right way. This bill ensures a legalized market in the Commonwealth is implemented safely and responsibly, with a thoughtful approach that provides opportunities to medical and recreational consumers, farmers, and small, medium and minority-owned businesses.” 

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman have both called for legislation to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults in Pennsylvania.

The commonwealth passed legislation to legalize marijuana for medicinal use in the 2015-16 legislative session.

“I’m proud to join my Republican colleague and introduce this historic, bipartisan bill to legalize marijuana,” said Street in the same release. “In close collaboration with Senator Laughlin, key community groups and stakeholders throughout the Commonwealth, we developed a bill that will benefit communities across the Commonwealth. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Legislature and with the Administration to build support for this critical legislation that aims to make Pennsylvania’s cannabis market the most diverse and inclusive in the country while enabling those who have been harmed by prohibition to seal their records and rebuild their lives.”  

The Pennsylvania Family Institute issued a statement Wednesday opposing the new legislation.

"There are a host of reasons why full marijuana legalization is disastrous for our communities," the organization said. "It would mean dangerously-high potent marijuana with up to 99% THC consistently packaged in ways that attract youth - including ice creams, candies and flavored vaping products like Strawberry Cough and Mango Dream. It would create more pot shops than Starbucks and McDonalds combined. 

"Despite legalized states placing bans on marketing to children, you still see colorful billboards for marijuana in states like California or Facebook pages touting their kid-friendly marijuana products. It’s the Big Tobacco strategy for targeting teens and addicting lifetime customers, applied to marijuana. And Big Tobacco giants like Altria are right now huge investors in the push for states to commercialize marijuana."

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