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A Pennsylvania lawmaker has introduced an adult-use cannabis bill, describing it as his state's most comprehensive bill of its kind to date and “a bold call to move Pennsylvania onto the right side of history and into the 21st century.”

Democratic state Rep. Jake Wheatley introduced HB 50, which would amend the Medical Marijuana Act and legalize the sale and adult use of cannabis and levy a tax that Democratic Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has estimated could bring in more than $580 million.

According to Wheatley, the funds raised would go toward affordable housing, after-school programs, and to the forgiveness of student debts. He said the bill would also work with Pennsylvania farmers “many of whom could save their family farms by converting their crops.”

The bill amends Pennsylvania's Medical Marijuana Act, approved in April 2016. It comes as neighboring states New York and New Jersey move toward legalization. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has stated he is willing to consider allowing adult use of cannabis.

“More and more states are successfully implementing marijuana legalization, and we need to keep learning from their efforts. Any change would take legislation. But I think it is time for Pennsylvania to take a serious and honest look at recreational marijuana,” Wolf tweeted in December of 2018.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman announced on Jan. 24, 2019, the launch of a statewide listening tour that will take him to each of the 67 counties in the sprawling commonwealth, including major cities such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and rural and mountain communities as well as those on the waterfronts of the Delaware River and Lake Erie. Dates have not been announced, but the tour is set to start soon. Fetterman said he wants to hear from critics and those with recommendations.

“We want to make sure all Pennsylvanians have their say,” he said.

Wheatley's bill has some support in Harrisburg, the state capital. The bill has 26 co-sponsors, and other lawmakers have come out in its favor.

“The legalization of adult-use cannabis and the end of cannabis prohibition will free up law enforcement resources we need in a way that goes beyond what mere decriminalization would do,” said Democratic state Sen. Sharif Street in support of the bill. Legalization would help Pennsylvania farmers and bring in funds for state priorities. Moreover, Street said, legalization is an issue of liberty.

“People should have the right to make responsible choices around cannabis just like they do with alcohol,” he said.

The bill faces an uphill fight. The Republican  Senate Majority Leader, Jake Corman, called legalizing adult-use marijuana reckless and irresponsible. After the 2018 elections, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives now includes 91 Democrats and 110 Republicans, with a Speaker of the House, Republican Mike Turzai, who has been a staunch opponent of legalization.

Turzai has argued that marijuana leads to other drugs and critics say he delayed the medical marijuana vote in 2016.

“He was like that with medical and we still got that passed,” said Steven Williams, a Democratic staffer with the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Finance Committee. He suggested that Wheatley's bill could move forward, citing the social justice components that he said many have requested.

“There's a lot of people who think that the time is now,” Williams said. “I think it's fair to say that in this go-round we could see it progress.”

In September 2014, the Pennsylvania Senate approved a bipartisan medical marijuana bill with a strong majority, 43-7. The fight was longer in the House, which eventually approved a medical use bill in March 2016, after months of back-and-forth. The vote was 149-43, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In April of that year, Wolf signed the law, becoming the 28th state to allow the use of cannabis for certain medical conditions.

In October 2018, Republican Rep. Barry Jozwiak, filed a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, along with other cities, have stopped prosecuting cases of possession of small amounts of marijuana, which was cited in DePasquale's July 2018 report as a sign that Pennsylvania could save millions in the cost of prosecuting minor drug offenses. The report projects a $1.66 billion economic boost to Pennsylvania if adult-use cannabis was legalized and taxed.

“For too long we have allowed myths and ignorance to prevent a realistic and thoughtful discussion regarding the legalization of adult-use cannabis,” Wheatley said. “In 2016, we passed a law allowing medical cannabis in Pennsylvania. That law was the right step, the first step, but we need to do more.”


Featured image: Democratic state Rep. Jake Wheatley introduced HB 50 in February 2019 to amend the Medical Marijuana Act and legalize the sale and adult use of cannabis in Pennsylvania.

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