Black Pennsylvania Lawmakers Lay Out Marijuana Legalization Framework Emphasizing Equity | Turn 420
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Black Pennsylvania Lawmakers Lay Out Marijuana Legalization Framework Emphasizing Equity



As Pennsylvania lawmakers work to advance marijuana legalization, the state’s Legislative Black Caucus has laid out a framework with specific policy priorities they want to see incorporated, including automatic expungements for past cannabis convictions and the creation of a social equity fund.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, members of the caucus discussed their desire to see Pennsylvania enact adult-use legalization—but emphasizing the need to do so in a way that uplifts communities that have been disproportionately impacted by criminalization.

“We, the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, want to state publicly what we have long argued privately: It is time that we invest in the restoration of communities that have been impacted,” Rep. Napoleon Nelson (D), chair of the caucus, said. “So many stakeholders and lawmakers and other states have already affirmed these moral imperatives, and we are convinced that Pennsylvania will do the same.”

While he acknowledged that it will be a complex legislative progress to develop comprehensive legalization legislation, he said there are certain criminal justice provisions that must be integrated before launching the adult-use market. To that end, the caucus is putting forward a framework focused on the criminal justice and social equity components of marijuana reform.

First, Nelson said the caucus “will not accept the advancement of an adult-use program that still holds incarcerated individuals that have previously been convicted for cannabis activity.” Members are seeking automatic expungements for past cannabis convictions, resentencing for those currently incarcerated, the correction of past record scores and a means of recouping the value of items seized via asset forfeitures.

“It is time that we offer uniform compensation for wrongly incarcerated Pennsylvanians,” he said.

Additionally, the caucus wants to see the creation of a Cannabis Development Fund under a new Office of Social Equity that would be funded by marijuana excise tax revenue, licensing fees and an initial appropriation. The fund would be used to support communities most harmed by prohibition, including recidivism programs, transitional housing opportunities, parks and recreation centers, street cleaning efforts “and other development initiatives to restore impacted communities.”

People who’ve faced a cannabis conviction or have a direct family member who has, or who live in a disproportionately impacted area, should be prioritized for marijuana business licensing, the caucus said. They should also be eligible for grants and low-interest loans to support their participation in the industry.

Sen. Sharif Street (D), who has long championed legalization in the Senate, echoed the caucus chair’s points and added that without the policy change Pennsylvania is going to continue to miss out on revenue that will go out to surrounding states that already have adult-use markets. He argued the status quo also hurts the state’s hospitality sector, as some people might choose to visit a legal state over Pennsylvania because of the access issue.

He added that a legalization bill introduced last month, HB 2500, is “a good piece of legislation,” and there have been other similar proposals that could serve as a vehicle for enacting the reform.

“But it’s about getting this done, getting a bill through the House, through the Senate and on Governor Shapiro’s desk, so that people can see relief and we can experience the benefits for our economy,” Street said.

Nelson, the chair, later said that there is not currently a piece of legislation that meets the standards laid out in the caucus framework, and members will be working with legislative leaders to get a bill in shape that incorporates the equity-focused policy priorities.

In terms of timing for advancing a legalization bill, the chair suggested it may be complicated to get the job done this year, especially given the heightened partisan atmosphere heading into the November election. Instead, the thinking is that caucus will advocate for their priorities throughout the remainder of the session to inform future actions.

That struck a different tone compared to what other lawmakers suggested late last month, as they emphasized the urgency of enacted reform given regional dynamics and signaled that legislators were close to aligning House and Senate legalization proposals.

Members were also asked about the prospect of legalizing cannabis through a state-run model as some have floated, and they largely ruled that possibility out. Street said that irrespective of the caucus’s perspective, a state-run regulatory framework would not pass in the Senate.

Rep. Amen Brown (D), who filed his own legalization bill in April, also spoke at Tuesday’s presser, stressing that “this issue goes beyond the mere legality of a substance.”

“It speaks to social justice, economic empowerment and the future of our state,” he said. “Passing adult-use cannabis legislation is not just about allowing recreational consumption, it’s about righting historical wrongs and addressing social inequities.”

“For too long, our communities, particularly in communities of color, have borne the disproportionate impacts of cannabis criminalization,” he said. “Legalization represents an opportunity to correct these injustices by expunging nonviolent cannabis convictions and reinvesting tax revenues into communities that have been most harmed by the war on drugs.”

Rep. Chris Rabb (D) separately spoke about his personal connection to the issue, explaining how he’s used medical cannabis to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how he was grateful that the state at least took the step of legalizing it for therapeutic purposes so he didn’t have to fear being criminalized for using a medicine.

Prohibition “is born out of racist public policy that has been normalized,” he said. “And so one of the many reasons that I am deeply committed and proud to be a member of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus is we say the quiet stuff out loud, because we have to.”

“We are working in a collaborative way to do what needs to be done—beyond the talking points, beyond just saying, ‘well, we need to legalize it because everyone else has,’—we want to do it right,” he said. “We want to do it right. We want to help everyone in the most meaningful ways.”

Meanwhile, a recent report projected that Pennsylvania would see up to $2.8 billion in adult-use marijuana sales in the first year of implementing legalization, generate as much as $720 million in tax revenue and create upwards of 45,000 jobs.

Street and Sen. Dan Laughlin (R) also recently participated in an X Spaces event where they said the votes are there to pass a marijuana legalization bill as soon as this year, though they stressed that the governor needs to work across the aisle to get the job done—and argued that it would be helpful if the federal government implemented its proposed cannabis rescheduling rule sooner rather than later.

Street was also among advocates and lawmakers who participated in a cannabis rally at the Pennsylvania State Capitol last month, where there was a significant emphasis on the need to incorporate social equity provisions as they move to advance legalization.

Laughlin, for his part, also said an event in May that the state is “getting close” to legalizing marijuana, but the job will only get done if House and Senate leaders sit down with the governor and “work it out.”

Warren County, Pennsylvania District Attorney Robert Greene, a registered medical cannabis patient in the state, filed a lawsuit in federal court in January seeking to overturn a ban preventing medical marijuana patients from buying and possessing firearms.

Two Pennsylvania House panels held a joint hearing to discuss marijuana legalization in April, with multiple lawmakers asking the state’s top liquor regulator about the prospect of having that agency run cannabis shops.

Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,500 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Also in April, members of the House Health Committee had a conversation centered on social justice and equity considerations for reform.

At a prior meeting in March, members focused on criminal justice implications of prohibition and the potential benefits of reform.

At another hearing in February, members looked at the industry perspective, with multiple stakeholders from cannabis growing, dispensing and testing businesses, as well as clinical registrants, testifying.

At the subcommittee’s previous cannabis meeting in December, members heard testimony and asked questions about various elements of marijuana oversight, including promoting social equity and business opportunities, laboratory testing and public versus private operation of a state-legal cannabis industry.

And during the panel’s first meeting late last year, Frankel said that state-run stores are “certainly an option” he’s considering for Pennsylvania, similar to what New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) recommended for that state last year, though a state commission later shied away from that plan.

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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