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Business concerns surface in recreational marijuana debate

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Citing the growth of Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program and changing public opinion, state Democrat leaders said that 2019 could be a watershed moment for legalizing recreational use of marijuana in Pennsylvania.

The cause also has been taken up by Gov. Tom Wolf, who recently began a second term. He tweeted last month that Pennsylvania should be learning from the legalization efforts of surrounding states like New York and New Jersey.

However, the effort will have to overcome significant opposition from Republicans, one of whom said she has fielded concerns from businesses about the issue.

The risk of employees coming to work with marijuana still in their systems is too high for employers, said state Rep. Dawn Keefer (R-Dillsburg).

“If you are eating an edible, it takes longer to hit you and the high lasts longer,” Keefer said. “How do you know that if they are coming to work? Are people going to start coming to work high? Were they doing it last night?”

Such concerns remain prevalent but they are diminishing as other states allow recreational use of marijuana, said state Rep. Jake Wheatley Jr. (D-Allegheny), who is looking for co-sponsors of a bill that would legalize the use of the drug for Pennsylvanians over 21.

Wheatley cited the success of the state’s medical marijuana program and growing public support for further legalization.

"Over the past decade, support for legalizing recreational cannabis has almost doubled to nearly 60 percent of all Commonwealth residents,” Wheatley wrote in a memo asking for support. "Our collective understanding has grown and myths that have been prolonged by those who are stuck in opposition have been debunked."

The bill was drafted in collaboration with cannabis-related stakeholders, as well as officials from health care and law enforcement, according to Wheatley. It would build on the state’s Medical Marijuana Act of 2016.

Wheatley said the feedback he got has reinforced the need to include provisions that would expunge the records of individuals jailed for past marijuana-related crimes that would no longer be crimes. He also said that the bill includes language that would ensure that manufacturers and retailers comply with permits and regulations.

This is not the first time that a recreational marijuana bill has come forward in the House, but Wheatley said lawmakers will be convinced to vote yes because of Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program, which has registered over 97,000 patients and continues to issue permits for new dispensaries.

“I think because we were able to pass medical in 2016 with bipartisan support and because the program has proven successful, we would be irresponsible not to start having a conversation and educating members about the pros and cons, along with too many misconceptions about legalization,” Wheatley said.

Keefer supported the state’s rollout of medical marijuana, but that does not translate into support for legalizing recreational marijuana. In addition to concerns raised by employers, she said it is bad policy as the state continues deal with an opioid epidemic.

“Shifting our priorities doesn’t make sense,” Keefer said. “The opioid epidemic is ravishing our communities and while we have this epidemic going on we are going to legalize recreational marijuana? It just runs counter.”

Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery County) and Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) have both co-sponsored bills in the past to legalize recreational marijuana but they did not become law. Leach has been pushing to legalize recreational marijuana use since 2013 in the Senate and most recently proposed a bill in 2017 that would legalize marijuana in the state.

Leach emphasized the need for patience when working to pass a bill. But Leach said he feels that 2019 could be a tipping point due to the progress of the medical cannabis program.

“Whatever major accomplishment has been made in politics, it’s rare someone has an idea and the legislature passes it. There has to be a buildup,” Leach said. “

Wheatley said that along with the timeliness of his legislation, the tax revenue that recreational marijuana would bring into the state should help convince lawmakers.

The state could earn $581 million in annual tax revenue from a 35 percent tax on recreational marijuana, noted a 2018 report by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

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Ioannis Pashakis

Ioannis Pashakis

Ioannis Pashakis covers health care and Lancaster County. Email him at ipashakis@cpbj.com.

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