Pennsylvania Hearing On Recreational Weed

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At a West Philadelphia hearing, state lawmakers, who are working on a recreational marijuana legalization bill, heard about the impact of cannabis criminalization on communities of color.

Pennsylvania lawmakers researching a bill to legalize recreational marijuana received a barrage of information Tuesday during a spirited, two-hour hearing in West Philadelphia.

They heard testimony espousing their instituting automatic and retroactive mass expungement of cannabis convictions and keeping the state’s “white cartel” of medical marijuana firms’ executives from taking over the recreational market.

And there were calls to just legalize it already — from a medical marijuana patient who said he spent time in jail partly because of marijuana charges.

The House Democratic Policy Committee hearing, convened by State Rep. Amen Brown, and other meetings held in Harrisburg recently by the Republican-led Senate Law and Justice Committee highlighted the multitude of demands that lawmakers have to satisfy — criminal and economic justice, work-related and driver safety, and more — to get a legalization bill passed.

Brown, a West Philadelphia Democrat, said after the hearing that the bill he is proposing with State Sen. Mike Regan, a Republican from central Pennsylvania who attended Tuesday’s hearing in Philadelphia, solves many of those concerns. It’s uncertain when they will introduce that legislation or whether it stands any chance in the state House of Representatives, where Republican leaders remain steadfastly opposed to legalization.

Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016 and made it available to patients two years later. But thousands of Pennsylvanians are still suffering from the impact of cannabis arrests, causing problems with their employment, housing, health, and education, said Andrea Lindsay, lead investigator and mitigation specialist at the nonprofit Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity. That is why mass expungement is necessary, she said.

Lester Hollis, a Black cannabis entrepreneur, in 2016 and 2017 helped what he described as an “African American-owned, African American-operated” company apply for a license to be a grower and a processor in Chester. The application failed because of how the state awarded points for diversity, he said.

“We now have a cartel of multistate operators who make nice gestures and say nice things, but the reality is that communities of color have not benefited by the rollout of this industry,” Hollis said. “It’s just rich white folks getting richer. That’s been a failure, as I see it.”

Community activist Isaac “Ikey Raw” Gardner told of his experiences with drug charges — a misdemeanor for cocaine and a felony for marijuana — and finally going to federal prison after being arrested for gun possession.

But Gardner also spoke as a medical marijuana patient, pulling out packages of weed to show the lawmakers and gesticulating with his phone to show how he could text his medical marijuana dispensary right there and pick up his order later in the afternoon, just like a drug deal.

It seems crazy to him: “Why are we even here? Why isn’t marijuana already legalized and regulated?”