It’s actually an awesome question because years ago nobody asked that question. All we heard for years and years was the simple declarative statement “Pennsylvania will NEVER legalize cannabis!”
Nowadays, we don’t even consider it a matter of if anymore. Now it’s a matter of when. So I will attempt to answer that question because it is a good one, when will Pennsylvania legalize cannabis?
Well, first of all you have to understand the political system of Pennsylvania. There is a process that all bills go through. A state senator or a state representative gets an idea to introduce a bill. The idea is submitted to the Legislative Reference Bureau where they write the bill. The legislator then circles a cosponsor memo asking for other legislators to put their names on the bill.
When the bill is officially introduced it is assigned to a committee. Many thousands of bills are assigned to committees and almost all of them die in those committees without ever receiving any consideration at all. Over 90% of all bills that are introduced never pass and the 10% or less that DO pass usually take about five years to pass.
The only way a bill makes it out of committee is either a few powerful and influential people want it or a popular movement is rising amongst the masses who want it. There must be lobbying. Someone has to actually fight for their bill.
For example, there is a bill for statewide decriminalization of cannabis called HB195. It was introduced by Rep. Ed Gainey. It has been introduced to the Pa. House Judiciary Committee. KCC is lobbying the Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on this bill.
There are two dozen members of the House Judiciary Committee and all of those members are the ones who we need to reach but out of all of them there is really only one man who holds all the power and is the one who we must reach. His name is Rep. Ron Marsico. He is the one who we must persuade to hold hearings on cannabis policy.
Representative Jordan Harris is also expected to reintroduce a bill for full legalization and his bill will most likely go to Marsico’s committee again and Representative Barry Jozwiak is expected to reintroduce a compromise bill for statewide decriminalization and it will also go to Marsico’s House Judiciary Committee. So his committee has three bills to consider.
In the state senate, Daylin Leach’s bill for full legalization is called SB213 and it currently sits in the Pa. Senate Law and Justice Committee. We need to persuade Senator Chuck McIlhinney to hold hearings. He is the chair of that committee and he holds all the power although we must reach every member of that committee.
Pennsylvania works in two year legislative sessions. Anything introduced in that two year time period whether it is in month one or month 23 has to be passed within that two year session or it dies and has to start all over again no matter how much progress it’s made. Most of the last session of 2015/2016 was taken up passing medical cannabis and industrial hemp legislation. That was about all the cannabis the legislature could handle. The medical cannabis bill passed overwhelmingly and the industrial hemp bill passed 233- 0 in the senate and the house. This gives us great hope that the reefer madness resistance is eroding.
The new two year session started in January of 2017 and it will end in December of 2018. We are in month two so that means that we have 22 months to pass legislation or see it die and be forced to start all over again.
In our work with KCC we have made relationships with dozens of state senators and representatives. We are friends with the Governor and many members of his administration. We played a role in passing the medical cannabis legislation and we are the ones who passed the hemp legislation with our lobbying efforts. Because of this involvement we have a very good feel for where the General Assembly is right now and unfortunately I have to report that there is about a zero percent chance that we will pass full legalization in this two year session.
Does that mean that we just give up? Of course not. What that means is that we start building the solid case and foundation for legalization at the same time we go for where there is consensus, our next achievable victory – statewide decriminalization of cannabis.
We have been trying to schedule a meeting with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Ron Marsico and we have met with staff from Senate Law and Justice Chairman Chuck McIlhinney about holding hearings on marijuana policy but have so far been ignored or politely listened to. That is why our rally in the rotunda of the state capitol building on Wednesday, April 19 is so important. We need to get hundreds of people there to demand action on cannabis reform and let them know that we are serious and we mean business.
So let’s say that our rally really rocks the house on April 19 and Chairman Marsico goes, “Who, I’d better schedule some hearings quick!” Then what happens?
The Judiciary Committee will then hold at least one and who knows, maybe two or three hearings. At worst, he may stack the hearings with reefer madness proponents. At best, it will be a balanced hearing with half of the people supporting the bill and half of them spouting off nonsense and propaganda. That’s why every member of the committee must be educated because they will have to vote by majority to move the bill out of committee.
The hearing phase of the bill could last six months or more before finally the committee will vote. If the majority of that committee votes Yes then the bill will be sent to the House for a full vote on the floor. The Majority Leader is David Reed and he schedules all floor votes. The Speaker of the House is fierce cannabis reform opponent Rep. Mike Turzai. Reed does not have to schedule a floor vote if he doesn’t want to. He could just sit on the bill or he could wait months with it.
Let’s suppose it passes in the House. Reed has scheduled a vote and hooray, much to our surprised approval HB195 has passed! Now Gainey’s or Jozwiak’s or Harris’s bill goes to the state senate where it is assigned to….another committee, the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
Now the Senate Law and Justice Committee has to pass it but before they do, if they have not already held hearings on cannabis reform policy then they may want to hold a hearing or two and that could take several months. Then if they pass it out of committee it has to go to the floor for a full vote in the senate. Then, if it passes it finally goes to Governor Wolf for his signature.
I am simplifying things a little bit but that is the basic path a bill takes to become law. You can see that under likely circumstances it may take us a year or more to even pass a bill for statewide decriminalization. It will be either our action or inaction that either speeds up or delays this process. A strong showing in Harrisburg on April 19 will give our issue a BIG boost and if we keep the pressure up I honestly believe that we can win by the end of THIS YEAR!
In Pennsylvania we cannot get legalization on the ballot. We have to go through the legislature. Our political process can be frustrating, discouraging and painfully slow. Although I have high hopes that we can decriminalize cannabis this year I also know the possibility that it will take us until next year but I am confident that within this two year legislative session we WILL pass decriminalization legislation.
Okay, so I gave you a reasonable timeframe for passing decriminalization but when will Pennsylvania fully legalize cannabis?
A lot of it depends on what WE do here in Pennsylvania. We must continue to grow this movement, to educate, to persuade, to rally and demand change. We are already doing that. We have to get more and more people active and involved. We have to get huge enough that they MUST enact reforms because the political pressure is too great and public opinion overwhelmingly in favor.
Just as important to consider is how outside influences will help determine what happens here in the Keystone State. What happens in Pennsylvania does not occur in a vacuum. Currently eight states have fully legalized cannabis – California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts, plus Washington D.C.
All of those states policies influence us a little bit but the most profound of these are Maine and Massachusetts. It is those two states that are ultimately going to be seen as the key dominoes to fall in securing legalization here.
Because of the victories in Maine and Massachusetts it is almost a sure thing that within 1-3 years all of New England will go legal. Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont have all come close to passing legalization bill in years past and will almost certainly succeed in their efforts to legalize very soon.
Also, in New Jersey there is only ONE impediment to passing full legalization legislation – Governor Chris Christie. Guess what, in 11 months he will be gone! It is predicted that by the end of 2018 cannabis will be completely legal in New Jersey! (If activists do their part.)
Delaware is also looking very promising. They have already passed medical cannabis legislation and statewide decriminalization. It’s a small state with a smaller legislature which makes change a little bit easier. How long will it take Delaware to legalize it? Between 1-3 years.
Another important state is Maryland. They are working two different paths to legalization. One path is a bill working its way through the legislature. The other path may lead to a ballot measure in the elections of November, 2018. So we may be less than two years away from full legalization in Maryland.
So in other words, by 2020 at the latest Pennsylvania will be staring legalization in the face from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland plus more states that will legalize it. By then there will be approximately 16 or more legal states. We will be two years already into our experience with decriminalization, thousands of acres of hemp will be growing in our fields and 150 medical cannabis dispensaries and dozens of grow ops in full operation and already a couple years into it. At that time, if it has not occurred already, Pennsylvania will be ready to fully legalize cannabis.
I am predicting that the shortest time to legalize would be three years. That’s three years though if everything goes right and the people keep demanding it. The general timeframe though I am predicting for full legalization in Pa. is 3-5 years.
This is why we must strongly demand immediate decriminalization of cannabis now. Decriminalization is not perfect. It is an imperfect, temporary and partial truce in the war while Pennsylvania figures out the best way to legalize it. We must also demand that Pennsylvania starts the conversation on full legalization right now.
KCC has already been making the case for full legalization for years and we will never stop until we have ended this cruel, barbaric, archaic and inhumane war against us forever and buried the opposition into permanent oblivion. In addition to going with the decriminalization consensus on April 19 we will also state in no uncertain terms that the ultimate answer is full legalization that allows for home grows and we will push that message as well.
There is one wild card that could speed up the process and that is if the masses in Pennsylvania suddenly awoke and stood up and demand their rights. The stronger presence we have at the Pennsylvania Marijuana Decriminalization Rally in Harrisburg on April 19 the more clout we will have.
Hope to see every one of you there.
Executive Director, Keystone Cannabis Coalition