Bipartisan Pennsylvania Lawmakers Seek Co-Sponsors On Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

December 10, 2023 ·

A pair of bipartisan state senators in Pennsylvania are working to garner support for a legislative proposal that would decriminalize marijuana, downgrading simple possession from a misdemeanor crime to a civil offense.

Sens. Sharif Street (D) and Camera Bartolotta (R) plan to reintroduce a bill from last session, SB 107, that would remove the possibility of jail time for possession and use of marijuana and instead impose monetary fines. The penalty for possession would be $25 under the pair’s proposed change, while the fine for consuming cannabis in public would be $100.

Street and Bartolotta circulated a co-sponsorship memo on Wednesday seeking additional sponsors for their forthcoming legislation.

“Medical marijuana has provided many patients with relief from their respective ailments and has aided them in their ability to cope effectively,” the memo says. “Yet, we still criminalize recreational cannabis and incarcerate those who possess small amounts of it. This seems injudicious and, frankly, inappropriate.”

Under current Pennsylvania law, possession of a small amount of marijuana is considered a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Further if a person is convicted of a violation, the state Department of Transportation is required to suspend their driver’s license for six months.

“Each year in Pennsylvania, thousands of people are charged with minor possessory offenses,” the senators wrote in the memo. “These charges permanently stain records and hinder an individual’s ability to obtain work, housing, and childcare. This legislation would ensure that the lives ordinary Pennsylvanians are not burdened by these insignificant charges.”

Local governments in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Erie have adopted similar decriminalization ordinances, although those changes do not affect state law.

The decriminalization proposal is likely to be just one possible path for lawmakers to choose during the coming legislative session. While Republicans have historically stood in the way of reform and continue to control the Senate, Democrats retook control of the House in last year’s election and the Democratic governor backs legalization as well, which could help clear a path for changes to advance.

While Street’s SB 107 proposal would decriminalize marijuana, the lawmaker has also come out in support of broader legalization with a strong emphasis on social equity.

In July, Street and a different Republican, Sen. Dan Laughlin, partnered on legislation filed that would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older. The senator and others said it’s also possible that separate, standalone bills will be introduced to address specific issues.

Street and Laughlin previously sponsored a legalization bill that was not ultimately enacted last session. And in February, Laughlin sent a letter to state law enforcement, urging officials to take steps to protect gun rights for cannabis consumers, particularly medical marijuana patients.

“This is going to be a multibillion-dollar industry,” Street said in September, at the sixth annual Cannabis Opportunities Conference, part of the Diasporic Alliance for Cannabis Opportunity’s (DACO) Black Cannabis Week. “We need to make sure that we’re inclusive… We need to make sure that folks can participate at every level of this industry.”

Rep. Donna Bullock (D), one of two House lawmakers who circulated a cosponsorship memo about a different legalization bill, said at September’s Cannabis Opportunity Conference that including a robust equity program is the only way legislation will win her support.

“No bill will move with my name on it until I’m comfortable that we actually answer those questions,” said Bullock, who has previously spoken out against the dominance of large, multistate cannabis companies. “No bill will move with my name on it until I know for sure we’re not repeating the mistakes of equity in name only.”

“If you think you’re gonna get me with just some expungements, you got it wrong,” she added.

Last month, the Pennsylvania House Health Subcommittee on Health Care held the first in a planned series of hearings on marijuana legalization.

Bartolotta, the Republican co-sponsor of the Street’s decriminalization bill, previously sponsored a bill to strengthen protections for medical marijuana patients under the state’s zero-tolerance DUI laws. She introduced an earlier version of that proposal June 2020.

Gov. Josh Shapiro (D), meanwhile, is on the side of enacting cannabis reform. In March, he proposed to legalize and tax adult-use marijuana as part of his 2023–2024 budget.

The governor’s office said neighboring Ohio’s recent move to legalize cannabis provides a renewed sense of urgency to follow suit in Pennsylvania, calling it “another reminder” of the need to enact cannabis reform.

Separate legislation filed in May by Rep. David Delloso (D) would legalize marijuana sales exclusively through state-run stores. The bill is similar to a measure Delloso filed last session.

As for Street, the lawmaker took some advocates by surprise recently by joining other senators in urging a federal court not to authorize an overdose prevention site site in Philadelphia, while supporting a proposal to ban the harm reduction centers statewide.

Ahead of legalization in Ohio, which took effect on Thursday, Pennsylvania Gov. Shapiro pointed to the change as “another reminder” of the need to enact reform. Five out of six bordering states—Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Ohio—have all done away with prohibition, leaving residents with plentiful and relatively accessible options to buy out-of-state cannabis products.

U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), for his part, said last week that Pennsylvania is getting “lapped” on marijuana policy by nearby states amid GOP resistance to the “common sense” policy of legalization.

“It’s absolutely absurd—how many states around Pennsylvania are we falling behind?” he said. “I don’t know why Republicans are opposing it, because the majority of their constituents want this. It shouldn’t be that hard in Pennsylvania.” (Full Story)

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