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September 25, 2018

Pennsylvania lawmaker introduces bill to legalize recreational marijuana

Proposed legislation would authorize release of prisoners jailed for crimes associated with cannabis

Legislation Marijuana
marijuana plants PA Images/Sipa USA

Marijuana plants are seen at the The Hemp Embassy Shop in Milan, Italy.

A member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has introduced a bill to legalize recreational marijuana.

Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, announced the comprehensive legislation covering recreational use and possession of marijuana at a press conference on Monday.

“My bill would immediately release people jailed for crimes associated with cannabis,” Wheatley said. “Those who have criminal histories related to cannabis would be expunged, and professional and driver’s licenses that were revoked or suspended due to cannabis-related crimes would be reinstated. For far too long, the criminal justice system has unfairly punished Pennsylvanians, especially minorities, who are caught with cannabis.”

Nine states and the District of Columbia currently permit recreational use of marijuana. Pennsylvania, which legalized medical marijuana in 2016, is currently rolling out and expanding the program across the state.

The bill introduced by Wheatley would not allow for public use of marijuana or driving under its influence.

Polls in recent years have shown that a majority of Pennsylvanians are now in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana. A Franklin & Marshall poll in 2017 found that 56 percent of registered voters would support such legislation, up from 34 percent in 2006. Even 44 percent of Republicans in last year's poll expressed support for legalization.

Wheatley's own polling numbers put support for legalization at more than 60 percent of Pennsylvanians.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale also has strongly endorsed a move to legalization, arguing that taxes imposed on marijuana would generate between $500-600 million in annual revenue. An exemption would be offered to growers who partner with existing state farmers who convert to cannabis.

“I propose that with the revenue generated from a wholesale, sales and retail tax, we could deposit 85 percent of it into the General Fund and provide the Department of Corrections with the other 15 percent,” Wheatley said. “That money would go toward positive things such as re-entry programs, workforce development and expungement services, along with mentoring and technical assistance in our communities.”

Statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union indicate that marijuana arrests are on the rise in Pennsylvania, increasing by 33 percent between 2010-2016.

Black people statewide were more than eight times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession during that period, even though usage rates are similar among people of different races, according to data collected from Pennsylvania's Uniform Crime Reporting System.

State Rep. Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia, started a search for co-sponsors in 2016 calling for the legalization of recreational marijuana. His proposal would have allowed state liquor stores to sell the drug.

Under Wheatley's bill, legalization would come with a diversity initiative providing incentives to hire women and minorities at existing dispensaries and other infrastructure planned as part of the medical marijuana program.

Gov. Tom Wolf has stated repeatedly that he doesn't believe Pennsylvania is ready for recreational marijuana, urging additional research into outcomes in other states.

Wheatley had introduced a petition in August where Pennsylvania residents could show their support for the legalization of recreational marijuana. As of Monday, it had 8,222 signatures.

"Legalizing cannabis – which is already permitted for medical use here in the commonwealth – would yield tremendous benefits for our state," Wheatley wrote. "It’s time to end the 21st-century version of prohibition, stop squandering billions of dollars in revenue and balance our budget!"

Wheatley's marijuana legalization bill has 12 co-sponsors as of Tuesday, including seven members of the state House representing districts in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs.

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