Will Gov. Shapiro’s budding plans to legalize Marijuana in Pa. get skunked?

Will Gov. Shapiro’s budding plans to legalize Marijuana in Pa. get skunked?

Pennsylvania's Push for Marijuana Legalization Gains Momentum Amid Budget Talks.

Pennsylvania’s hopes for marijuana legalization reached new highs after Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget address Tuesday, when he said adults should be allowed to use the drug recreationally.

With Ohio voters backing legalization in a ballot question last year, he said, “Practically all of our neighbors have legalized marijuana,” while Pennsylvania is “losing out on an industry that, once fully implemented, would bring in more than $250 million in annual revenue. And our failure to legalize and regulate this only fuels the black market and drains much needed resources for law enforcement. It’s time to catch up.”

But we are about to enter budget season in Harrisburg, with Republicans in control of the state Senate and Shapiro’s legislative ground game still untested. So all this could all go up in smoke.

Make no mistake: “It’s been a couple of pretty good days for cannabis,” said Meredith Buettner, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition trade group. “Including it in the budget signaled the governor’s leadership on the issue, and it’s aligned with the idea of not raising taxes but creating a new group of consumers willing to pay for safe and legal access.”

Shapiro has voiced support for legalization before, and his budget draft last year included revenue projections from taxes on recreational use. But he didn’t mention it in last year’s budget address, and the issue got lost in the shouting about funding for private schools.

By contrast, this year may be the best chance legalization will get for a long time to come. That’s partly because state Sen. Mike Regan — a Republican supporter of legalization who chairs the Senate committee that handles such matters — is retiring at the end of the year. In Harrisburg, committee chairs have considerable leeway to advance or bottle up bills.

The stars seem aligned in other ways as well. Polling suggests that nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvania voters support legalization, a consensus underscored by the fact that 57 percent of Ohioans voted in favor of it last fall. The 2022 victory of U.S. Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, a longtime proponent of legalization, suggests that position need not hurt, and may even help, candidates for statewide office.

Plus, legislators on both sides of the aisle have an interest in posting some wins in a high-profile presidential election season.

All in all, Buettner said, “It’s really important that this happen this year.”

Still, there are some thorny issues to resolve. For starters, who will sell this stuff?

Buettner’s group represents the dispensaries that distribute cannabis under the state’s medical marijuana program. Letting them expand into the recreational market is the most straightforward approach, she said. While opportunity can be expanded to include newer operators later, she said, trying to make legalization part of next year’s budget is “a complicated thing to be rolling out on a very tight timeframe. But it’s doable through the existing operators.”

Another proposal is to have the state store system handle it, a proposal whose rationale gave us state stores in the first place: that private sector operators will emphasize profit margins over community health.

That’s just one of the regulatory issues to resolve. Which is why western Pennsylvania state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, for one, says legalization on Shapiro’s timetable is a pipe dream.

“I don’t see it any time soon,” she said.

Bartolotta is not a diehard prohibitionist (although we’ll soon likely be hearing from those, too). She’s an outspoken champion of decriminalization — a policy that falls short of outright legalization but advocates removing criminal penalties for some possession offenses.

“Pennsylvania is punishing people and ruining lives for possessing small amounts of a substance that is legal in the states around us,” she said.

Yet when I asked whether it was realistic for the legislature to legalize pot “when you already have to hash out a $48 billion spending plan,” she said, “I see what you did there, Chris. But let me be blunt: This will not be high on our list of priorities.”

Bartolotta said that before the state expands marijuana access further, it should revisit its 2016 law allowing medical use of the drug. She and other critics say the law has resulted in large industry players having too much control over dispensaries, at the expense of more, well, home-grown interests.

“We passed medicinal cannabis in 2016, and we still haven’t gotten that right,” she said. (Note, too, that Buettner ’s proposal to have existing dispensaries handle recreational sales would only deepen Bartolotta’s concerns about their market power.)

Republicans also have broader misgivings with Shapiro’s budget, especially its $48 billion price tag partly financed with savings from prior years.

“The biggest question is how will we pay for this?” Bartolotta said. “We’re not going to do it by smoking weed.”

But she added that over the long haul, legalization “is probably an inevitability. I don't have a crystal ball, but this conversation just keeps coming up and up and up, and we see other states allowing it.”

Indeed, support for legalization has doubled during the past few decades, and some decriminalization efforts have bipartisan support. Sooner or later, Pennsylvania seems fated to come to the same conclusion it reached with casinos: that it’s self-defeating to pass laws that merely drive residents across state lines to indulge their appetite.

“Making everybody happy on something like this is going to be difficult,” Buettner said. Shapiro’s speech was in some ways “a marching order for advocates. … It's not time to celebrate, it's time to put on the boxing gloves.”

And hey, if this doesn’t get dealt with in budget talks, maybe legislators can find some other suitably bipartisan approach. Like forming a joint committee.

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Region: Pennsylvania

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