Pennsylvania State Senators Team Up to Introduce Bipartisan Adult-Use Cannabis Legislation

Sen. Dan Laughlin becomes the first Republican in the Pennsylvania legislature to sponsor cannabis legalization; Sen. Sharif Street is Democrat sponsor.

February 24, 2021

Clinton Blackburn | Adobe Stock
Pennsylvania State Sen. Dan Laughlin is not a fan of cannabis. He doesn’t use the product. And he doesn’t think it’s great for others to use it either.

But the lawmaker from Erie County, in the northwest corner of the state, became the first Republican in the Pennsylvania legislature to sponsor an adult-use cannabis legalization bill, which he introduced with Democrat Sen. Sharif Street on Feb. 24.

During a press conference with the two sponsors Wednesday afternoon, Laughlin said he knows it seems odd that he’s not a proponent of cannabis, yet he’s a primary underwriter of the legalization bill. But since he started working on the legislation with Street, an African-American of Philadelphia, he realized some of the social damage that communities of color have experienced over minor offenses, he said.

“That really got my attention,” Laughlin said. “But I think the final straw was a conversation that I had with one of my kids. And I checked with him. He said it was OK to mention this in the hearing. He told me that he could have a bag of weed delivered to the house in under an hour, and that’s better service than Amazon. And I realized that anyone in Pennsylvania that wants to smoke marijuana is probably already doing it. So, we might as well take this and regulate it. I think [it] is the most responsible thing that we can do.”

The approach to the bill focuses on a safe and legal means for adults 21 years and older to purchase and use cannabis; social and economic equity that includes expunging non-violent cannabis convictions; agricultural arrangements in a safe and regulated manner; and new tax revenue and job creation.

According to a press release from Street, polling indicates that nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvanians support adult-use legalization. And according to testimony from the Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office, adult-use legalization can generate between $400 million to $1 billion of new tax revenue for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

In his opening remarks during the press conference, Street said adult-use legalization is pragmatic, both economically and socially, in Pennsylvania.

“It’s important for us to understand that this is going to open up economic opportunity for so many citizens, but, moreover, we have farmers that are struggling,” he said. “And to deny them the opportunity to get into the cannabis field, when our neighboring states are moving forward with cannabis recreational adult-use legalization, would be unfortunate and it would be a lost opportunity.

“We have patients who may have signed up for a cannabis card to use medical cannabis but can’t afford it. Home grow will give them an opportunity to get the medicine they need at a price they can afford. There are so many reasons to move forward with cannabis legalization.”

There are challenges associated with the stigma of adult-use legalization, like keeping products out of the hands of children and discouraging people from driving while under the influence of the psychotropic effects from cannabis use. The senators’ bipartisan bill is mindful of those concerns, while, at the same time, aimed at eliminating the illicit market in the state, Street said.

When asked about why they chose to introduce a legalization bill, and not focus their attention on broader decriminalization efforts, Street said decriminalization would create a structure for people to use, but Pennsylvania still wouldn’t have a market for them to purchase cannabis that is safe and labeled. “And, secondly, we don’t want to grow the [illicit] market. We want to eliminate it,” he said.

In addition, Laughlin said the majority of Pennsylvanians support adult-use legalization. So, while promoting that legalization is pretty much a 180-degree turn from his opinion since he first took office in 2017, it is the right direction to head, he said.

“I ran for public office because I wanted to solve problems,” Laughlin said. “And you can only solve problems when you are honest about what people think and how people really feel. It’s clear to me that public attitudes towards marijuana have changed dramatically in the past decade, maybe more than any other issue in recent memory.”

But questions circled back to Laughlin regarding what kind of support he has from the majority leadership in his Republican Party. The GOP owns a 58% majority in the state Senate and a 55% majority in the General Assembly.

Laughlin and Street sent out a co-sponsorship memo to their fellow legislators Wednesday morning. By noon, they had three co-sponsors sign on—all Democrats. Laughlin said his colleagues in the Republican leadership wanted to get more feedback before they jump in with support, but they certainly gave him a free pass to move forward with his sponsorship, he said.

When asked, “Why now?” Laughlin said it’s always the right time to do the right thing.

“A couple of people have already asked me, ‘Why would a Republican do this?’” Laughlin said. “Well, I actually believe that this is one of the most conservative and fiscally conservative things that I’ve gotten to work on so far. You know, Republican Party stands for less government, more freedom, and I don’t know what would be more free than this.”

Following are additional details of the bill, as outlined on Street’s website.

Safe and Legal:

  • Sets the minimum cannabis consumption age at 21 years old; mandates age verification for every purchase.
  • Bans any marketing directed toward children and provides the appropriate deterrence to keep cannabis out of the hands of anyone under 21 years old.
  • Empowers law enforcement with the means to adjudicate driving under the influence, and to pursue and eradicate an illicit market.
  • Provides clarity and consistency for workplace rules regarding cannabis use for all those operating in good faith and protects the Second Amendment rights of all Pennsylvanians.

Social and Economic Equity:

  • Expunges non-violent cannabis convictions and decriminalizes cannabis up to a certain limit.
  • Creates licenses for social and economic equity applicants and establishes that the majority of new licensees are granted to social and economic applicants.
  • Leverages Pennsylvania’s existing medical cannabis licensees to fulfill demand on an enhanced timetable while providing social and economic equity licensees the capital and know-how to succeed.
  • Implements a Business Development Fund, administered by the Commonwealth Financing Authority, to support loans, grants and studies.
  • Allows limited home grow for patients.

Agricultural Engagement:

  • Authorizes farmers and craft growers across the commonwealth to engage in the cultivation of cannabis.
  • Through established demand, enables any applicant who wants a license to get a license to cultivate cannabis in a manner that is safe and regulated.

New Tax Revenue and Jobs:

  • The Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office projects that adult-use legalization can generate between $400 million to $1 billion of new tax revenue for the commonwealth.
  • The proposal will create thousands of new jobs.