Exciting Times for Cannabis Reform in Pennsylvania

Exciting Times for Cannabis Reform in Pennsylvania

Posted by on Jun 21, 2016 in Blog

It’s been a month since the last blog and so much is happening in the cannabis reform movement in Pa. it’s enough to make one’s head spin.

Things are moving at a rapid pace. Here are a few recent developments:

13346913_10208199565380097_594996264470059151_nIndustrial Hemp : KCC is responsible for getting two bills introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature. We worked with state senators Judy Schwank and Mike Folmer to introduce SB50 and we worked with representatives Russ Diamond and Marty Flynn to introduce HB967.
SB50 passed 47-0 in the senate. They sent it over to the house but the house took no action on it. Instead they voted on the house bill and passed HB967 187-0.

HB967 currently sits in the senate Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee and SB50 sits in the house ag committee. They have been stagnant for several months.

PAHIC_logo_VerticalIn addition to our duties with KCC, Erica McBride and I also are a part of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council. When we advocate for the hemp legislation we do so under the banner of PaHIC in order to emphasize the economic and environmental benefits of hemp without the stigma associated with the cannabis issue.

On Monday, June 6, PaHIC held a Hemp History Week press conference in the state capitol. In addition to Erica and I we were joined by fellow board members Adam Thompson and Riley Cote along with PaHIC president Geoff Whaling.

13346935_597815527052199_5106157351542267841_nAlso speaking at the event was Michael Kovich, president of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, Hannah Smith-Brubaker, Deputy Secretary of the Pa. Department of Agriculture, State Senator Judy Schwank, State Senator Mike Folmer and Representative Russ Diamond. We also read prepared remarks by Rep. Marty Flynn. The best treat though was being able to read a written statement of hearty support for hemp by Governor Tom Wolf.

We talked all about the history of hemp in Pennsylvania. We talked about the situation with hemp right now in states like Kentucky and Colorado and we talked about all the great opportunities for hemp in Pennsylvania. Most importantly though, we urged the legislature to take action on the hemp issue and get a bill to Governor Wolf’s desk immediately.

13332929_10208199563980062_5593265346144032855_nWell, FINALLY we are on the threshold of a new industry. The senate ag committee will be voting on HB967 on Thursday, June 23. It will pass and then must go to the floor for a vote in the full senate. It is expected to once again pass easily, most likely unanimously once again. After that, since the bill has been amended, it must go back to the House where it will be quickly concurred. We may be one or two weeks away from finally passing industrial hemp legislation in Pennsylvania!

Unfortunately it is too late to get seeds in the ground this year, however we expect many farmers to be able to participate in hemp trials next spring.

cannabis-cuffsDecriminalization: There’s good news and there’s bad news. Amidst the good and the bad there is opportunity for us to work for positive change. Let’s start with the good.

Earlier this year Harrisburg City Council considered a proposal by Mayor John Papenfuse to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of cannabis and make it a summary offense. It was a step in the right direction but the fines were excessive. It called for a $100 fine for first offense, $200 for a second offense and it elevated to a misdemeanor penalty and $300 fine for a third offense.

In a series of council meetings, KCC applauded the willingness of council to consider the ordinance but expressed strong concerns. We said that the fines were excessive. We opposed escalating fines and the third strike provision.

hccCouncil listened to our concerns and they were convinced. They worked out a compromise and scaled the fine back to $75 for both a first and a second offense. They differentiated between simple possession and smoking in public. For public smoking they are asking for a $150 fine, but still downgraded to a summary offense.

On the third strike misdemeanor they did a slight compromise. The mayor was adamant about this so council compromised with him. A third strike is a misdemeanor but only if it occurs within a five year time frame of the first arrests.

a60690e4942e0dc1a9d6bc842fa5d883KCC will not be happy until cannabis is completely legalized but in the meantime we can support the new ordinance as written. Although we would have preferred a $25 fine like Philly and Pittsburgh have but in Harrisburg the best they could agree upon was $75. Those who can not afford the $75 can work it off with 10 hours of community service.

Keep in mind, we only have to put up with this situation until we achieve full legalization in the state, a process that could take 3-5 years. No individual municipality can legalize cannabis before the state does. What they can do is decriminalize it and that what Harrisburg City Council has chosen to do. We applaud them. Their efforts will give legitimacy to and accelerate the move towards statewide decriminalization.

1977223_734016720054185_6009592695473201343_nAlong these lines, we were thrilled to learn that Representative Ed Gainey has introduced a bill for statewide decriminalization that we can support. It is called HB2076 and it reduces possession of up to an ounce of cannabis to a summary offense and a MAXIMUM fine of $100. Under this bill a judge would be given discretion and could fine a defendant anywhere from a dollar to 100 dollars.

KCC supports full legalization of cannabis and will use every opportunity to discuss the merits of a fully legal cannabis industry. However, we know that the political climate in the Pa. general assembly is not there yet. Even though last month’s Quinnipiac poll showed that 58% of Pennsylvanians support full legalization there is very little support in the legislature.

However, there IS support for decriminalization and that is a battle that we can win. Decriminalization is not perfect. It is a temporary, partial truce in the war, an interim policy while Pennsylvania figures out the best way to regulate it.

As statewide decriminalization bills go you can’t do much better that Rep. Gainey’s HB2076.

Now on to the bad news…

marijuana_legal_gavel_620x350A year ago we learned of what we call a fake decrim bill introduced by Berks County freshman legislator Representative Barry Jozwiak. It was called HB1422 and it was sent to the House Judiciary Committee, headed up by Representative Ron Marsico. Jozwiak was a career law enforcement officer and Marsico’s brother is the DA for Dauphin County. We took note of it but in hearing no action on the bill for the last year we forgot about it and assumed it was dead.
Suddenly about 10 days ago Andy Hoover of the Pa. branch of the ACLU alerted Chris Goldstein of Philly NORML who in turn alerted us that the House Judiciary Committee was going to vote HB1422 out of committee on June 14.

First I should explain what’s so bad about HB1422.

2Right now the max penalty for possession of up to an ounce of cannabis in Pennsylvania is a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. It is considered a misdemeanor.

Although some people are detained overnight most people do not get any jail time for possession. Also most people do not receive the maximum fine either.

HB1422 reduces the penalty from a misdemeanor to a summary offense. Okay, so far so good BUT it makes the fine for a first offense a mandatory MINNIMUM $500 fine. Judges can show no discretion. They are forced to give at LEAST a $500 but if a judge is a right winger he can impose a fine of THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS if he so chooses.

Furthermore, HB1422 calls for a minimum of $750 for a second offense while escalating to a third strike misdemeanor with a mandatory minimum of a one thousand dollar fine!

13406805_10154709088043797_4398311356281688867_nWe had 4 days to make a mad scramble to defeat this bill. The we sent out emails to every member of the House Judiciary Committee and laid out all the reasons why we oppose this bill. KCC got on it and so did Philly NORML and Pittsburgh NORML as well as the Pa. ACLU. Chris Goldstein spent hours on the phone talking to Judiciary Committee members and their staff trying to stop the bill. Others worked with reps to get them to withdraw their sponsorship or to introduce amendments to make the bill bearable if it got that far.

Together with Philly NORML, Pa. ACLU, Pa. for Safe Access, C4C, KCC showed up at the Judiciary Committee meeting on June 14 and then had a joint press conference where we voiced strong opposition for HB1422 and emphatic support for HB2076.

13406702_1699772323620562_6978827172988186291_nSpeaking at the press conference was lead organizer Chris Goldstein from Philly NORML, myself, Luke Schultz from C4C, Adrienne Leasa, Andy Hoover of the Pa. ACLU, Randy Robertson and the man himself, Representative Ed Gainey.

It worked, at least temporarily. The Judiciary Committee was flooded with calls and emails and they recognized the problems with the bill so they tabled it for now. We do not know if they intend to revive it or not. They may get sneaky and try to attach it as an amendment to another bill.

We will stay vigilant and try to beat down any attempts to move HB1422 and in the meantime will make a strong push for a REAL bill for statewide decriminalization, HB2076.
Full Legalization: Representative Andy Harris has introduced a bill for full legalization in the House. Harris’s bill allows for home cultivation of cannabis and proposes that Pa. sells cannabis in the state stores.

DemandChangeKCC will constantly make the case for full legalization. There is no chance that the Harris bill will be passed by end of this two year legislative session which comes to a close at the end of this December. However, it does get the conversation started. It will have to be reintroduced in January and then it has two years to either pass or fail. Most likely, it will be statewide decriminalization that comes first, after a battle for it that is.

If you are from Pennsylvania, join our Facebook discussion page for Keystone Cannabis Coalition where we discuss in much detail everything that is going on every day. It’s the best way to stay up to the minute on all the Pa. cannabis and hemp news. It is also a place to learn how YOU can make a difference and help us on our mission to completely end cannabis and hemp prohibition in Pennsylvania while hastening the day when the wall of national prohibition falls.

Please support our work by making a generous donation to ensure our ability to continue taking the case directly to the public and right to the halls of power in Harrisburg.

Les Stark
Executive Director, Keystone Cannabis Coalition